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

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


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

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

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

New posts start on Monday, May 21.

Thanks for reading, and congrats to all the graduates!

Vince (aka The Doctor of Paper)

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


How do you handle negative feedback/move forward from it

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vince (aka the Doctor of Paper)

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

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

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


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

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


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

Amy Is Awesome

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


Diet Coke

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

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


Fear of failure

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

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

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

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


I’m not chasing someone else’s dream

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Human Twitch”

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

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

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

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

It was about 90 degrees outside at the time.


Living Urgently

Amy and I had this conversation recently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near the end of the discussion there was this exchange:

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

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

Five helpful thoughts as you panic about not having an internship yet

When March turns to April, summer seems only a few short weeks away. For those of us in Wisconsin, that means the snow might finally finish melting and we can finally put away our shovels and salt spreaders for the year. For journalism students everywhere, however, April means moving from “Hey, I applied for this internship” to “Why haven’t I heard back from the internship?” to “GOD, WHY?!?  WHAT HAVE I DONE IN LIFE THAT IS SO FOUL AS TO NOT GOTTEN AN INTERNSHIP YET?!?!”

I asked some folks I know who hire interns in the field what thoughts they had about this time of year, working through the hiring process and so forth. I also dug through the old file of rejection letters and such to come up with some advice for those of you who are somewhere between moderate concern and psychotic panic.

The Most Basic Advice:

You aren’t doing yourself or anyone else any good freaking out. The process is going to be the process, so don’t get yourself so wired that you’re tied up in knots and likely to send a horribly embarrassing text or email to a potential employer, begging for information. Cooler heads prevail, so YOU MUST CHILL. As one person who has worked for everything from top 20 circulation newspapers to promotions for the UFC explained:

My favorite quote: Patience is not absence of ambition. #EverybodyChill

This Takes Time

I remember working night desk at the State Journal one night when we were looking to hire a swing-shift reporter. My boss, Teryl, was responsible for reviewing the candidates. It was the end of a hellish night and I had just finished the midnight cop calls and settled in near the scanner to keep an ear out for any breaking news. Teryl sat down and pulled this giant stack of folders out of her desk drawer and dropped them on her desk with that clanging THUD that only half-metal, half-Formica desks can emit. There had to be 50 or more folders there, easy. She picked up the first one and with a heavy sigh, she started going through them. I thought it would take longer for her to get through them than it took for Andy Dufresne to make his way to freedom. I’m sure it felt just about as fun for her as it did for him.

Even now, these things take time and there is a ton of work involved. Even if you are the perfect candidate, it’s going to take a while to dig through the pile to find you. Or as one of the pros I talked to who is currently hiring interns said:

I’m at a very small agency and my colleague and I also have SO many of these things to sift through. We received more than 50 resumes for our one internship, and there’s only two of us to read them through. The process of trying to line up schedules and find a time for interviews is an absolute nightmare. Even once we do that, we’ve usually gone through 2-3 rounds of candidate interviews before we find someone we like. We try to put a dedicated effort into finding someone quickly and it still takes us about 3 weeks per hiring cycle.

You need to have reasonable expectations of how long this will take and understand there are actual human beings on the other end of this process who are likely doing their level best. Your best bet is to check in when you submit your material and find out what their general plan is for contacting people and then add about two weeks to that. Once that time has ended, you should give them another week and then contact them. But only do it once and do it in a, “I know you’re insanely busy but I wanted to check in” way. As a guy who works for Facebook explained to me:

Have the students ask what the typical turnaround times are so they have the right expectations and use the time spent waiting for one internship to apply to 3 more.

That said, if you have important updates, it helps to let the people know about that so you stay at the forefront of their minds in a positive way, according to a top PR pro who has worked for major players all across the country:

I also think that continuous follow up always keeps you ahead of the game. If it means thanking them for their time, sharing a story about the news they heard about the company (recent awards or otherwise) or writing a letter about how they are the ideal candidate and list specific strong reasons why… it goes a long way. I’m currently helping hire our interns for Baird and those are just a couple of things that stand out to our Directors/Managers.

Have a Plan B (and C…)

What might be the perfect internship for you might not make you the perfect candidate for the company. With that in mind, it helps to cultivate multiple options. If you are afraid that you might not get THE internship, keep an eye out and toss your hat in the ring for others that come open. One former newspaper editor who hired interns explained why this is a good idea:

I’d also recommend that students not put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to jobs and internships. Take the time to apply for a variety of internships. At best, you have a few great options to choose from. At worst, you got practice with the application process that will help you for years to come.

Another pro, who has worked in news, PR and university marketing, said not only should you be applying for multiple internships, but you should look for every opportunity to get experience if you get one:

Don’t sit tight waiting for one or two opportunities to pan out. Keep searching and keep applying. And be willing to seek and do work that gets you access to watch and learn, not necessarily do the “intern-version” of the “full-time thing.” Be a clerk. Tackle phones and backstage stuff if it gets you a front row seat. Bottom line: apply, apply and apply some more.

Take Advantage of Bad Situation

It helps to keep your ear to the ground for just-posted internships right about now and here’s why:

  1. Media outlets don’t always have their acts together when it comes to an internship program. Some places will get involved late in the game because they finally got permission to hire or because the money was finally available for the position. This means right about now, another wave of internships might be cresting and it could be yours to ride.
  2. Don’t feel bad about this, but it is possible that other candidates out there are viewed as being better than you are. As you sit at home, in a panicking dervish of anxious hope, those “better candidates” are taking internship offers and planning an awesome summer. Yes, this eliminates a few internship possibilities for you, but it also means that several other places that were banking on the Golden God/Goddess candidate are now looking for their Plan B. In some cases, you might be that Plan B. In other cases, they run out of options that are available and they might re-post the position. This gives you another shot to apply for something you might have missed or bypassed on your first salvo of applications.
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  3. (You might not like it if you think your next internship sees you like this, but consider it a chance to prove them wrong.)

I know this all sounds like, “Hey, you might not be all that good, but you might be the best of the really lousy candidates left after all the good kids take the good jobs,” but that’s not the point. Yeah, you can look at this like you’re some kind of damaged goods if you want, but it’s better to think about it this way: You want the internship and the experience that goes with it, so suck it up, check your ego and apply to be someone else’s “good enough” option. There’s a huge benefit to this: The ceiling on how impressive you can be is really unlimited. You have the ability to prove to them that you are awesome and you probably are better than whoever it was from the Almighty Deity School of Journalism and Perfection that turned them down. Plus, nothing makes someone work harder, stronger and faster than a really big chip on the shoulder.

Don’t Be This Candidate:

You might find yourself wondering “Why?” when it comes to the lack of communication from your potential internship suitors. This is where it helps to go back through your materials. In one case, someone didn’t get the gig because they mis-typed their phone number on their resume and people couldn’t get a hold of her. In another case, the applicant’s package never made it and he was too bashful to check in on the process. Then there are candidates like the ones this pro described:

And for the love of all things holy, please ask them to read their resumes over numerous times for errors, have someone else do it, and then do it again. I just threw out one for calling the Huffington Post the Huntington Post and another for spelling her own school’s name incorrectly.

This is why it pays to edit the hell out of your resume and cover letter before you send it off. (I screwed up and misspelled the name of editor on my cover letter, but he hired me anyway. Conversely, I saw Teryl toss one of the applications away when the person wrote “Dear Mr. Franklin” to her in the salutation. It’s dicey out there.) It also would help to have someone look over it for you, preferably someone whose not just going to say, “Wow! You’re great! Now can we go to the bar?”

If you turned out to be the person who screwed up in one of these ways, it will be in your best interest to figure that out before you have to send stuff out again.

The journalism films you should watch if you want to be a journalist (Part I)

Journalism films are all over the place lately, as are documentaries about journalists. It seems like if a film can include a typewriter, somebody smoking indoors and a sense of “taking on The Man,” it’s on a screen these days. Seth Meyers did a fantastic send up of this on his late-night show:


In the 1970s, “All The President’s Men” became the “must-watch movie” for journalism students. When I was in college, we gravitated to “The Paper,” as we all seemed to know random guys like Randy Quaid’s character who bordered on insane. (One of my newsroom friends started calling me “Hackett” after Michael Keaton’s Coke-guzzling, workaholic character.) Now? It could be one of a dozen or more fictional, documentary or “based on a true story” films, so I dug back through IMDB and put out the question to the Hivemind on what was “required” watching for budding journalists.

Below are my “Top Five” films in no particular order with some rationale behind my picks. I tended to consider three things in each pick I made:

  1. Did I watch it more than once because I liked something about it?
  2. Does it give viewers something important in it, regardless of the genre or format?
  3. Do I think students would actually watch this if they weren’t forced to and actually enjoy it?

Those considerations knocked out a couple films for me that others picked up on. I’m also quite certain it will have people screaming at me that I’m wrong.

In any case, here we go:

1) Judging Jewell (2014, ESPN: 30 for 30) – At shade under 22 minutes, this story packs a lot of lessons into a short space. In 1996, a bomb shattered the peace of the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, killing 2 people and injuring more than 100 others. This could have been much worse had it not been for the heroic actions of Richard Jewell, a security guard who was working at the Games for AT&T. Jewell spotted the package and began moving people away from that area before the bomb detonated.

Jewell was originally considered a hero, but the media turned on him when public sentiment held that Jewell was likely the bomber. What followed was an 88-day “trial by media” that demonstrates what can happen when the race to get the story becomes all-consuming. (My favorite lesson comes from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which ran a line about how Jewell “fits the profile of the lone bomber,” and why attribution matters so much in news writing.) Jewell was eventually exonerated, as terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was captured and confessed to the bombing. However, Jewell never really recovered. This is a sad story and yet a good cautionary tale for journalists.

2) Spotlight (2015) Critics have compared this film to the classic “All The President’s Men,” in that it shows how reporting can bring down a powerful institution. It also has similarities in the ways in which the journalists had to engage in real “shoe leather” reporting to make this happen. The critical nature of sources, fact checking, working around problems and other things journalists pride themselves on are on full display here. One of the more interesting things is the early resistance from within the paper when it comes to “going after” the church. Although, like most “based on a true story” movies, we know how it will end, the tension that comes from the fear of being wrong makes this both a tale of aspiration and one of caution.


3) Shattered Glass (2003) – In between his stints as a young Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen portrayed another character drawn to the dark side. Stephen Glass was a young, well-liked journalist at The New Republic when he engaged in a series of fraudulent behaviors that shook the magazine to its core in the late 1990s. Glass started by faking a few quotes here and there before eventually writing pure fiction and passing it off as fact. The epilogue of the film notes that 27 of the 41 pieces he published during his time at the magazine were partially or completely made up, not to mention fabrications he freelanced to a number of other publications.

Some aspects of the film, which is now 15 years old and based on an incident that happened two decades ago, don’t age well for younger viewers. The idea of having to use “every search engine on the web” to get information seems quaint, as does the discussion of the fear associated with an “internet publication going after a giant.” That said, the lessons are fantastic.

At some point in life, almost everyone has wanted to be “the cool kid.” Glass fell into that trap, as you can see in the “60 Minutes” interview below. He loved the attention and would do anything to get it, including wandering down a path of self-destruction.

I would also wager, most people also have found themselves in a jam at some point and thought, “If I just cut a corner here, I could get out of this alive.” Some do it and convince themselves they’ll “only do it this once.” Like most other things that are horrible for you, it’s never just once. If you take the Red Pill, you never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole. Even today, Glass is still dealing with his past.


4) The Paper (1994) – It’s fiction, it’s ridiculous in spots and yet it is one of the few films that captures the complete randomness of life in a newsroom. From the A/C that breaks to the guy who swears he has “Watergate” on every story, this is a funny story with a great cast. If nothing else, this scene just nailed it for me:

“Who the hell took my stapler?”

If I had a dollar for every time something in a newsroom made me laugh, I’d be able to fund all the newspapers in the world forever. This movie reminds me of that every time I watch it. Probably a biased pick, but give it a look and tell me I’m wrong.

5) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – A wrestler, a sex tape and sleazy internet publication are at the central junction point of this film and perhaps the most important free-press case in decades. The movie looks at the trial of Bollea v. Gawker, which pits wrestling star Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Bollea) against an internet gossip magazine. Gawker was a publication that a lot of people hated for being mean-spirited and snotty, but it also went after “true things about bad people” to quote a former worker. However, at the heart of this case and this film are several crucial questions including, if a sex tape is news, who gets to decide that and what forces are at play behind all of this.

The film goes beyond the “guess who saw the naughty stuff” issue and digs into who was funding Hogan’s legal team, what other multi-millionaires are out there potentially undercutting press freedoms and what this means going forward.


Feel free to tell me I’m wrong about everything, if you so choose.

Tomorrow: The answer to “How can a list like this NOT include ‘All The President’s Men!’ as well as the suggestions of the Hivemind.


Four reasons I care about what the student government is doing to The Sunflower (and why you should, too)

(Editor’s note: The situation at Wichita State University, in which the student government is cutting funding to the student newspaper, The Sunflower, is one of those horrible situations that needs hope:

EIC Chance Swaim said that sharing the message made sure that, “If a tree falls in the forest, I want everyone to hear.” Make sure people hear it loud and clear.)

Allison Hantschel Sansone, who has written for us here occasionally and runs a massively successful political blog, would occasionally confront a colossally lousy situation with a call for hope. She would call for her readers to donate coats for homeless kids, kick in to a GoFundMe for high school journalism kids or to give money for food to support hurricane victims. Her motto is one to which I aspire:

“Hi, we’re from the internet and we’re here to help.”

The responses she got often stunned her in terms of speed and help, as they did me yesterday. If you took any two posts I’ve written since I started this blog, added the views together and doubled them, you wouldn’t get as many hits as the post on The Sunflower got in 12 hours on Wednesday. (And that includes one post where I was basically giving people stuff for free.) More people bought T-shirts (or at least clicked on the link to buy them) than I had visitors for any post during the rest of the week.

You all are from the internet and you are here to help, so thank you.

For people who are still asking (and they’re out there), “Why do you care so much about a college paper in a state you never even visited and people you never met?” here are four simple reasons why I care and why I think everyone else should too:

1) Student media outlets matter: I know that this seems like a self-serving statement, but it has turned out to be more true than I could have imagined. If you skip past all the standard answers of why they matter (They shine a light on sketchy campus situations, they provide students with a voice, they train future journalists who can make an even bigger difference etc.), you can find other bigger reasons they matter.

Students who find the courage to enter the newsroom where it seems like everyone has a place and knows what they are doing tend to find their own place and their own purpose. I often joke that we’re a family, in that we all drink and yell at one another, but I mean it more honestly as well. I have yet to have students come back to me to reminisce about that “great midterm you gave us” or “remember the time in class when I raised my hand?” However, I have found they’ll come back, sometimes decades later, to talk about the paper and their time there. It is really a part of their lives.

2) Bullies suck: If you ask my mother the first time she ever saw me REALLY upset about something, she’ll likely tell you that I used to watch “Peanuts” TV specials when I was 3 or 4 years old and rail about how everyone was so mean to Charlie Brown. There is something about bullies that just drives me around the bend and I imagine I’m not the only one to feel that way.

What is happening at WSU is nothing more than bullying. And it really ticks me off.

Over the course of the past couple months, WSU student government President Paige Hungate has stated she can close a meeting when she wants, called the university president a coward, proposed draconian cuts to the student paper’s budget, told the faculty senate she is in charge and said the university president had no choice but to agree with her on cutting The Sunflower’s budget. Does that sound like someone versed in the nuance of collaborative governance?  It sounds like Loki:

Why are Hungate and others at WSU so interested in bullying the paper into submission? It could be that the paper has done a lot of investigative work that has caused the administration some consternation. It could be that the paper covers the SGA closely and it would be so much better for Hungate and the rest of the group if the paper were put on a leash. It could also be that the paper reported on Hungate’s parents who were “under criminal investigation for battery and anti-black, hate “fighting words” following an altercation at a student government banquet.” The former SGA president, Joseph Shepard, pressed charges following the event. It could be anything…

This isn’t an attack on Hungate, but rather an attempt to point out that bullying the paper into silence is something nobody should abide. Speaking up makes that point clear.

3) Feeling alone sucks worse: A big reason we take staffers to student media conferences goes beyond the writing, photography and design stuff they learn. The reason is to show them they’re not alone in their problems at the paper. A campus usually has ONE editor in chief or ONE managing editor who has to wonder, “Is all of this stuff normal or are we weird?” That “stuff” can be anything from “Why can’t the sports desk ever make deadline?” to “How do you deal with a photo editor who is trying to sleep with all his photographers and creeping everyone out?” When you think you’re the only one in the world who deals with this, it can be daunting.

The first thing Swaim asked me for wasn’t advice on how to defeat the SGA or how to fix the financial situation. He asked me to get the message out about what was happening. In other words, “Tell the story. Let people know.” When I did, he got back what he wanted to hear: “We see. We know. You are not alone. We are behind you.”

When I was fixing the finances at my student newspaper about 112 years ago, I’d be up until 4 a.m., tearsheeting a year’s worth of ads wondering where the hell everyone else was who “swore” that this place meant “so much” to them. When we asked for help to retire our debt, people wrote checks from all over the country and others who couldn’t sent letters and notes of support. It was that outpouring that told me the most important thing:

You are not alone.

4) The Hole Story: The person I can sympathize with the most is Amy DeVault, the adviser of The Sunflower. She is a long-time WSU faculty member, a top-notch journalist with a good amount of field experience and an adviser with passion for student media. The last thing she, or any good adviser, wants is to BE the news. Even more, advisers always walk the fine line of being helpful and taking over when things get rough. She saw this coming for more than six months and has been working quietly behind the scenes to try to avoid this rock-and-a-hard-place moment that seemed inevitable.

(Side note: The only way I’ve ever been able to explain the adviser-editor relationship adequately is through “The Godfather” movies: The editor is the “don” of the family and the adviser is the “consiglieri. The adviser offers all the advice and solutions possible, but at the end of the day, the don makes the call. That’s the way things are set up in student media at public institutions, thanks to this thing called First Amendment.)

I’d like to say that I can’t imagine what she’s going through right now or what Swaim is enduring, but unfortunately I can. Two years ago, the student government here decided to come after the paper. Making things worse, they came after me directly, putting together a formal resolution demanding that I resign as adviser and if I didn’t, that the chancellor fire me.

The students not only had to deal with the issue of how to fix the paper’s funding and the student government’s attacks on the paper/me, they also had to COVER this as NEWS. There is no more sickening feeling than having to leave your own newsroom because you didn’t want the students to feel awkward writing a story in front of you about an attempt at your ouster.

Every day feels like you’re getting the crap kicked out of you. You fear every email, every phone call and every text message because it might be the one that ends everything. I remember being unable to sleep and feeling like my heart was going to leap out of my chest at various random points. The world feels like it’s collapsing all around you and you have no idea how to stop it.

You also fear what it’s doing to your staff. My editors were constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It got so bad that I told my editor, “Look, if it will make life easier on you, I’ll just quit.” She looked at me and without hesitation said, “Even if it did make life easier, there’s no way I’m letting you quit.” (See point one. We were family.) DeVault sent me a message telling me that Swaim is in constant fear that what is happening here will cost DeVault her job. My students worried about that as well. Those were the worst professional days of my life.

Two years later, those student government… um… people… have graduated, the paper is fine (ish) and life is better. The only thing I have to remind me of all this is the resolution they signed to oust me, which I framed and put on my wall next to an autographed picture of Mary Beth Tinker. That’s why I want to help people like Swaim and DeVault. It’s the personification of “The Hole Story” I love to tell:

I’ve been in this hole, and I know there’s a way out.

If you have too, keep supporting these people. They deserve it.

The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

Growing up as a Catholic kid, who spent way more time near nuns than is now recommended by the FDA, I found the concept of hell horrifying. Conceptually speaking, it was a place of fire, brimstone and evil where you went after you had sinned without repenting, angered God through evil acts or accidentally ate a Slim Jim on a Friday during Lent.

Later in life, I asked a priest who was a little more “new school” about the faith for his views on eternal damnation. He told me it was probably more of never-ending sorrow and sadness than the torture outlined by those who grew up before the Vatican II era. It was a a longing and pain for better things and regret over what we should have been. In other words, hell is more individualized and accounts for what we did and who we were.

If hell hits somewhere in that “sweet spot” between those points, I’m sure I know exactly what I’ll be getting myself into if I’m not a decent human being. Since I’ve invested most of my life in teaching and journalism, I know that hell will involve reliving certain conversations I’ve had with students over the past 20 years that continue to sap my will to go on.

So without further ado, I bring you the five conversations journalism professors have in hell and how you can help us avoid them while we’re still alive:



Look, I get it. Textbooks are expensive. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that textbooks cost too much, change too often and usually have the lifespan of a mayfly. That said, we assign them for a reason: They actually contain stuff you’ll need to know. This is particularly true for books like the AP style guide. Here was an actual conversation I had with a student half way through the semester:

Student: How much are these books?
Me: What do you mean?
Student: This AP book, how much does it cost?
Me: About $20-25. Why?
Student: It must not have been listed on the criteria for the class. I think I’ll go buy it though.

OK, let’s pretend that I hadn’t mentioned it about 10,002 times already and that I didn’t include it as a required book in the syllabus and that I didn’t mention this as a MUST HAVE for the class (as in, “If you are broke, don’t buy the textbook, but buy the AP book.) AND that it wasn’t stocked at the book store.

Every other student in that class had the book. What, they were clairvoyant and just figured I wanted them to have it?

Making things weirder, a student in the very next section of that class, sitting in that very same seat asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION about the AP book, swearing he had no idea that this thing would be important. I think I need to call in some sort of holistic medicine person to burn sage on that chair or something…

Still, this pales in comparison to the year I told the students in WEEK 12 that they should bring their AP style guides to class, only to have one student reach into his backpack and whip his out. “GOT IT!” he said, proudly displaying the book he was supposed to have read by that point in time.

It was still shrink wrapped.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Buy the books and read them. If you are REALLY broke (as in, stacking pennies for Ramen broke) and you CAN’T afford them, talk to the professor and see what is absolutely essential and what you might be able to dodge. However, do this somewhere before the midterm.


The constant yelling of old people (read: me) about “damned kids these days” come from the fact that we often wonder how hard students really tried before giving up all hope and saying, “Just give me the answer.”

Damned Kids

Case in point, here was a conversation I had about a midterm question in which students were asked to rewrite a lead on one of four stories. Each story included a specific time peg, so I told students to use the day specified in the story (e.g. The game happened Saturday, so use “Saturday” as your “when” element.) when they wrote their lead. About an hour into the test, here was the conversation:

Student: I know you said that there is a time element we need to use with each of these stories, but I honestly can’t find one in this story I’m using.
Me: OK, pull it up and let me see. (he does)
Student: I looked through this whole thing and there’s no time element.
Me: Really?
Him: Yes, I can’t find it anywhere.
Me: Read the first sentence out loud for me.
Him: Oh.

Yep. Right there in the lead was that elusive time element he sought. I suppose I was lucky the student didn’t have trouble finding his pants before showing up in class…

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Don’t give up so easily on figuring things out. There is something to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. Print it out or magnify the text or whatever you need that will help you consume the content. Also, if you really CAN’T find the content, when you ask, do so in a way that doesn’t immediately insinuate your professor is an idiot who failed to include the content.

Trust me, this is a great fear of many instructors and there are days we can’t remember what we ate for lunch, so screwing up a test is always a possibility. We then panic when you are “so sure” that whatever it is you’re looking for isn’t actually there. Finding out that, no, it actually is present and, no, we don’t have early onset dementia, is both a relief and a moment of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?”



Rules are put in place to assure fairness, standardize procedures and give everyone guidance on how to proceed with a test, an assignment or a project. If you want to curdle a professor’s soul, explain to him or her that, yes, you understand rules exist for all those reasons, but the rules really only apply to other people.

Student: I know you said we can’t interview relatives for this assignment, but I was wondering if I could interview my mom.
Me: OK, what does your mom have to do with (the story topic)?
Her: Well, she’s a parent of a college student…
Me: But that’s really not what the story is about and even if it was, there are like 14,000 students on this campus, many of whom have parents. Does she have some special insights that none of the others would have had?
Her: Um… I don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t I just interview my mom?
Me: Again, she has nothing to do with the story and I need you to get out of your comfort zone and interview people that you don’t know. It’s a skill you’re going to need as a reporter.
Her: So that’s a no?
Me: Yes. That’s a no.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Start by assuming that the rules, however arcane, have a reason behind them. Envision that “Karate Kid” moment where Daniel realizes that he hasn’t just been an indentured servant, but rather has been learning karate:

Also, realize that we WILL give people special dispensation for certain things, but it has to be germane to what we’re doing and provide a rare glimpse into something no one else could provide. If you’re doing a story on what it’s like to be an NFL referee and your uncle is an NFL referee, we might think, “That would actually work.” However, if you’re doing a story on how bad parking is on campus and you want to interview your best friend because he owns a car, think twice before asking on that one.

Nothing sounds worse to a professor than a student essentially saying, “Look, I know you told me what to do here, but you have to understand that rules don’t really apply to me because I want to do it my way and obviously that’ll be better for me, so can you just rubber stamp my demands? Thanks!”


Professors have a ton of stuff to do and most of them feel like they’re not doing it well enough to make anyone happy. The ability to focus well enough to deliver a two-hour lecture on something you will need to know to succeed in the class is the Educational Dream of the Millennium.

When you blow it off, fail to take notes or get way too into a SnapChat battle with your roommates during lecture, it can be irritating to us. When you then ask us to “fill you in” on what you “missed,” We tend to have this reaction:

Actual email:

I was just wondering what exactly the group interview project is again and what needs to be turned into you by Friday! I don’t quite remember everything you said at the end of class yesterday so if you could remind me that would be great.

At least that guy showed up, unlike the student who blew off class, skipped an assignment she knew about and then sent this:

Sorry, I was not able to attend class today. What did I miss? When is the interview paper due?

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Go to class. If you don’t go to class, get notes from somebody before asking us to rebuild a lecture for you. If you went to class and forgot to write something down, ask a classmate. If you are going to class, writing stuff down and still failing to remember major things, seek help immediately.


Me: Hello? Anyone out there?
Voice: Welcome to hell. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, evil incarnate, the lord of the underworld. Do you know who you sinned against to land you here?
Me: Do you mean, “Do I know against WHOM I sinned to land here?”
Voice: Oh great. Another journalism professor. Y’all are down the hall, third door on the left.


NYT’s Bari Weiss, “immigrants” who get the job done and Filak’s first rule of holes.

As we’ve mentioned before here, using social media is like playing with live ammo: You need to take it seriously, think things through before you publish and realize there are ramifications for your actions. Unfortunately for some people, having access to social media is like giving a toddler a bag of meth and an automatic weapon.

And, as we’ve mentioned here before, screwing up will happen. Your face is not on a lunchbox. You should do your best to avoid screwing up in the first place, but if you do, the worst thing you can do is double down on your screw up. As I’ve told my students who mess something up, “Filak’s first rule of holes is ‘When you find yourself in one, stop digging.'”

Case in point: Bari Weiss of the New York Times.

When Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel during her performance at the Olympics, the first time a woman has done this in the history of the Games, Weiss tweeted out, “Immigrants: They get the job done.”

Nagasu is a U.S. citizen whose parents were immigrants and she has maintained dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan. When someone pointed out this fact to Weiss, she responded in a dismissive and unsatisfying way:


This, like most dismissive statements tossed at people on social media, did not go over well with the Twitterverse, which responded in pretty much the same array of rage you get whenever someone makes a racist comment, complains about politics or picks on Brittney Spears. Some people called Weiss on the carpet for not taking this issue seriously enough, while others cut right to the chase and essentially told her, “Here’s toaster. Go play in the bathtub.”

The problem wasn’t that she said something glib that put her in a hole. The problem was that she kept digging.

First, it was a reference to the fact she was quoting (incorrectly) the line from “Hamilton” about immigrants. Then it was her trying to bend reality to fit the notion this was a compliment and that it spoke to Nagasu’s immigrant parents. Then it was her chastising all of Twitter for picking on her:


Anyone who has spent any time on social media had to be thinking at this point, “How deep do you really want to dig? This hole is getting to the point where the core of the Earth is about to be exposed…” It was similar to what happened when Louise Linton, an actress and the wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, sent out an Instagram post that detailed her fashion wear as she stepped off a government plane.

When people poked at Linton for flaunting her wealth, she belittled them, told them they didn’t pay nearly as much in taxes as she did and then called one poster “adorably out of touch.”


Instantly, she became the “Marie Antoinette of Instagram” and became a symbol of out-of-touch wealth in this country. Recently, she has noted that she was “super-duper sorry” about her social media rant, which I’m sure will quell the crowds that continue to call for her head.

The lesson for today is a simple one: When you put something out into the public via a media channel, you will be held to account. Before you decide to snap back at people who are voicing their opinions about your opinions, stop and think about a couple things:

  1. Is it possible that I just screwed up and that people, although they may be expressing it in a way I don’t like, are right that I was off base?
  2. Will any good come from me randomly trying to justify what I wrote or am I just fanning the flames for trolls and people with a legitimate beef alike?
  3. Is this REALLY the hill I want to die on? In other words, is this worth me pouring a ton of time, effort and energy into trying to change the minds of people who probably won’t change their minds as I engage in an ever-escalating Quixotic attempt to “set the record straight” or will it just be a waste of time?

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe a New York Times journalist can learn something from a guy at Barstool.

When Chloe Kim took the gold in the half-pipe event, Barstool radio host Patrick Connor called the 17-year-old “a hot piece of ass.” (Pause. Wipe the vomit off your lips and hang with me here…) After realizing that a grown man ogling an underage girl during the Olympics was not all that bright, he went on Twitter and wrote:


No, that shouldn’t entirely let him off the hook and yes, there should be more ramifications for him, but he at least decided he was deep enough in the hole and it was time to stop digging.