Clickbait, murderous gnomes and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Heard and Obituary Math

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

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

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

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

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

A quick check of his IMDB page gave me this:

IMDBHeard.jpg

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

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

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

HeardWikiFull

 

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

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

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

 

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

SONY DSC

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

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

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

When it did, I wished it never had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused, wondering if she was OK.

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

Score one more for the Crawfish River…

You earn the fungus on your shower shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

Filak-ism: “Don’t use a hammer to change a light bulb”

Hammer

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

I always tell students in my class the simplest rule in journalism is this: Right tool for the right job. Or put another way, “A hammer is a fine tool, but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb.”

Tim Stephens, of SportsManias, shared this Newsweek article about the “pivot” many news organizations are making to video. MTV News and others are chasing demographics (and advertising money) with the idea of adding video to everything to better monetize content. The article cites several key statistics as to why this makes sense as well as why it will never really work out well for these outlets:

The forecast is grim. “Pivoting to video” won’t solve long-term media business woes in 2017, just as Facebook Live didn’t solve them in 2016 and quizzes didn’t solve them in 2014 and curiosity-gap headlines didn’t solve them in 2013 and listicles didn’t solve them in 2012 and blogs or whatever didn’t solve them in 2007. Eventually, algorithms change and ad models collapse and executives panic and money flows apace into Facebook and YouTube and other distribution channels. Flashy, short-sighted solutions don’t really solve existential crises. Or, as Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery‏ phrased it on Twitter: “Pivots, more often than not, aren’t led by real audience strategy. It’s chasing an ad demo, or dream of a demo, like a cat chases a laser.”

Reporters and editors can smirk at this cash grab, but we aren’t immune to the idea of using new technology or trendy toys just because we can. If you want a great example of this, watch this old Daily Show clip of Jon Stewart take down CNN’s coverage of a missing airliner. Journalists flock to a form of technology because it’s new or different and it seems like they’re “ahead of the curve.” However, live-tweeting a planning and zoning meeting or doing an interactive graphic of how to buy a dog license just because you can makes no sense.

Conversely, some journalists retreat to a platform of comfort, using it regardless of its applicability to the situation. A veteran print reporter can find a way to make every story a text-based story while a veteran broadcaster can turn anything into a video story. However, just because you can, it doesn’t follow that you should.

In the book, we argue that things like text, images, graphics, video and audio are simply tools you can use to tell stories. You should learn enough of each of them to understand their strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly. This will better serve your audience and will improve your overall storytelling.

It will also keep you from breaking an awful lot of light bulbs.

 

Filak-ism: “A handful of Jell-O”

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

Trying to write is sometimes like grabbing Jell-O. You have a big handful of this wobbly, slippery, messy stuff that you want to enjoy and consume. However, you suddenly worry that it’s slipping away from you, so you start gripping it tighter and tighter. Instead of feeling more confident that you’re holding on at that point, the stuff starts squishing through your fingers, sliding away from your grip and generally escaping your grasp. The instinct to grab it more tightly kicks in and eventually you have a clenched fist and almost nothing inside.

Deadlines, personal investment in the piece and a fear of writer’s block can freak you out to the point where you want to hold on so much you end up losing everything during that panic. Best advice I have is to treat each piece you write like a handful of Jell-O: Relax your grip, do your best to balance things out and don’t worry so much about losing little bits of your work. Don’t grip it so tight or you’ll lose it all in the process.