“You don’t have the talent to win on talent alone:” 5 quotes from Herb Brooks and how they apply to your life as an up-and-coming journalist

In an odd twist of calendar calisthenics, Feb. 22 fell on a Friday and Feb. 24 fell on a Sunday, the same as they did 39 years ago when a team of relative unknown hockey players took the ice for the United States at the Lake Placid Olympics. The average age of the team members was 21 and the team was coached by the last man cut from the only U.S. team to ever win a gold medal in hockey to that point in history.

A guide to the Olympics put out by its own committee that year picked the U.S team to finish sixth or seventh. Instead, it toppled the greatest team in the world in a “Miracle on Ice” on Friday and finished off Finland on Sunday by scoring three goals in the final 20 minutes to secure the gold.

Woven among the various stories, legends and myths surrounding that team and its journey are a few of what the team called “Brooks-isms.” These often-caustic sayings from coach Herb Brooks kept the players motivated and often shaking their heads, wondering what the hell it was their coach was trying to say.


A much younger version of me and my friend Allison with the great Herb Brooks.

In honor of what Sports Illustrated dubbed the greatest sports moment of the 20th century, consider these five quotes from Herb Brooks and how they apply to your life as an up-and-coming journalist:


“You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

Brooks use to yell this at his players when they decided to coast against inferior opponents instead of really taking the game to them. In one infamous incident in Norway, his team loafed its way to a 3-3 tie against a really weak Norwegian squad. After the game, Brooks refused to let his team leave the ice and instead forced them to conduct skating drills until the guy running the arena shut off the lights.

Then, Brooks had them continue skating in the dark.

His point was a good one in that if you rely solely on your talent, you will often fail because talent only gets you so far in life. If you think you’re “too good” to cover a speech or a news conference, it’s at that precise moment that you will screw something up and end up in a whole lot of trouble. You need to treat each time you ply your trade like it is the most important thing you will do and make absolutely sure you give it everything you have. Failing to do that means you’re setting yourself up to fail.

“And maybe I’m a little smarter now than I was before for all the stupid things I’ve done.”

I found the other day this among the various quotes attributed to Brooks and I never realized he said something like this. However, I’ve told students something similar for years: “I’ve learned more from the things I’ve done wrong than anything I ever did right.”

I noticed that my students these days tend to fear mistakes and stress over failure to the point that they miss the point. As I have written more than a few times, you will screw up here. You are not on the side of a lunch box. That said, you have to know WHAT you did wrong, WHY it went wrong and HOW to make sure you don’t screw up that way again.

If you end up in a situation where an assignment goes to crap or you failed a test or something else goes horribly, horribly wrong, worry less about the grade and worry more about the WHY behind the grade. There are always professors out there who want to torture the heck out of students just because, but those are few and far between. If you go to the professor with the idea of, “I need to understand what went wrong so I can get better at this,” you will improve your future work and you probably will gain some serious respect.

“I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones.”

This is a bit of a cheat, as it was a line from the movie “Miracle,” but Brooks said similar things throughout his career in a variety of ways. He talked about looking at talent second and people first, as well as finding players by looking at who they are more and what they can do less.

Brooks understood something that is important for you to know: It’s not about your pedigree, your fancy internships, the degree from the “Lord Almighty School of Journalism and Deification” or anything else that has that shiny patina of “Look how important I am” that matters.

What matters is the way in which you will work to succeed, how hard you will push yourself to make yourself a valuable commodity, how badly you want something and to what degree you will sacrifice part of yourself for the greater good.

The “right” players are always going to beat the “best” players, as his team proved during that 1980 Olympic run.


“Risk something or forever sit with your dreams.”

People always tell you that life is short. It’s not true. Life is long, especially if you don’t decide to live it. When most of you are getting out of school, you’ll be sitting in that early-20s area of life. The average life expectancy of people in the U.S. is about 78 years, and that’s accounting for the fact that we’ve seen a decline in it over the past couple years.  This means you have more life on the “coming up next” part of your life than the “I’m done with this” part of your life.

You have time. Take a shot at something.

Risk is scary and in some cases it’s not worth it, but you need to at least consider what it is that would make you happy and try it out. Eventually, you will have more responsibilities, more things weighing you down and more reasons not to do something. Take a calculated risk on a career path. Try a job that’s going to give you a chance at something unique. Do something that you said you always wanted to do.

If you don’t, the regrets will eat you alive.


“Play your game.”

With 10 minutes to go in the semi-final game against the Soviet Union, Mike Eruzione scored to give the U.S. a 4-3 lead. Goalie Jim Craig said once that it was “like banging a bee’s nest. All we’re gonna do is piss them off.”

The Soviet team had the ability to score five goals in three minute. Ken Dryden, who added commentary for the game, said in later years that in situations like this you dared to hope that you could win and then the Soviets would just crush your hope and leave you for dead.

Brooks knew this and he knew his team might panic and this whole thing could fall apart. He just kept telling his team, “Play your game.” Cameras during the end of that game caught him repeating that phrase like it was a mantra and it apparently worked. The team kept playing the way it knew how to play and it gave the Soviets fits.

The key here for you is pretty simple: Play your game. In a lot of cases, students make the mistake of chasing someone else’s dream or trying to prove themselves to be better based on other people’s standards. That’s crap. Play your own game and stick to what you do best and what make you happy and you’ll be fine.


Final note: My favorite Brooks-ism is one that probably shouldn’t be repeated, but I will anyway. After his team knocked off the U.S.S.R., all it had to do was beat Finland to win the gold medal. Eruzione recalled that the team was excited to go out and play until Brooks walked into the locker room:

He looked at the team and said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it with you to your (expletive) grave. He turned around to walk out, stopped, look back and said, ‘Your (EXPLETIVE) grave.

Something else to keep in mind, I s’pose…

Stuff I Said: Talking about “Covington Catholic MAGA Kid vs. Native-American Drummer” with The Clackamas Print

After the “Covington Catholic MAGA Kid vs. Native-American Drummer” post ran, a student journalist reached out from Clackamas Community College in Oregon to get a few of my thoughts on how speed and accuracy tend to bump into each other a lot in media these days.

(In case you missed it, the family of Nick Sandmann, the student in the video, is suing the Washington Post over its coverage of him. The suit, which asks for $250 million, argues that publication ran several “false and defamatory” articles and backed them up with similarly problematic tweets.)

The interview questions were good and in reading the responses I gave, I found myself saying, yet again, “Well, hell… I really need a filter. Or a translator from ‘Filak-ism’ to English.” Here’s one such moment:

TCP: What do you think the coverage of both the BuzzFeed story and the Covington Catholic Kids says about modern journalism?

A: I don’t know if this is necessarily a “modern journalism” thing, other than to say the reach of media is now able to do a lot more damage when a story goes south. It’s like if I were to be reckless with a firearm: If I’m reckless with a .22 pistol, I can hurt some people, but if I’m reckless with a rocket launcher, I can do a lot more damage. That’s the difference between things in the pre-digital era and now.

Yep. I definitely need a translator… In any case, you can read the whole exchange here.

Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: 4 helpful thoughts on finding your way through life

Scott Cunning, an associate professor of economics at Baylor University, recently laid out his life path and his feelings regarding jumping into grad school right after college as part of a Twitter thread.  He makes a number of points that are good, including the idea that grad school shouldn’t be about inertia or self-doubt, but rather when you know what you want (and that you want grad school). He talks about job choices and the benefits to getting one as well here, and I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read.

The nexus of his thesis is something students should keep in mind: You won’t know what you want to do until you end up running into it. That can make for some pretty high levels of anxiety for students and parents, as well as some really awkward family gatherings where random relatives feel it is their duty in life to say, “So you STILL don’t know what you’re doing yet?” instead of “Nice to see you. Pass the potatoes.”

In hopes of helping you defend your psyche from the chaotic panic and shutting down the naysayers who keep blaming your generation’s downfall on “FaceSpace and those iText things,” here are four things to keep in mind:


Everyone in college is lost and that’s just fine: At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students in each of my classes what they want to do with themselves once they get out of school. Some of them have a vague notion, half of an idea or a general sense, and that is about the BEST it gets. Only once in all my time teaching did I ever really have a kid tell me something straight-up honest and it was last semester:

Me: So what do you want to do with your IWM (Interactive Web Management) degree?
Him: Make a ton of money.
Me: How will that work?
Him: I don’t know. I’m gonna figure that out when I graduate.

For the rest of the people in my class, it’s like this: “I want to graduate, get a job, not move into my parents’ basement and not have to answer stupid questions like this one from every relative who runs a business selling wiener dogs out of a mobile home and somehow thinks they’re better than me.” Spoiler alert: That’s the American dream of this generation.

Cunning is right, though, in that you won’t know what you want to do until you do it, which is why they force you to take a boatload of general education requirements in college: They figure you don’t know what you want, so they give you a taste of a bunch of stuff.

Instead of taking those classes with only the edict of “Please, God, not another 8 a.m. on Fridays,” look at classes that might interest you and see where they take you. That’s how you bump into things you might like to do for the rest of your life and find some direction. In the mean time, it’s not a problem to not know.


Being good at something doesn’t mean you should do it: The longest-running argument in my life is between my mom and me about what I should have done right out of college. She still believes that I would have made a great speechwriter for politicians, based on my various skill sets. I liked to write and had the ability to turn a phrase fairly easily. I did well in public speaking courses and extracurricular activities, such as debate and forensics. I worked well under pressure and could logically process information quickly. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.

Here’s the counterargument I had for mom: I hate politics.

I spent a lot of time with political figures during college, ranging from student government folks on up through the city and county leaders and found I disliked the majority of them and their attitudes. I never understood the wrangling and the gamesmanship they used to carve up their little portion of the world just a little bit finer. I also hated the arrogance and ego associated with the jobs. Why on Earth would I want to write things for people like this so they could snow under a whole bunch of voters in hopes of furthering their own petty agendas?

The point is, Mom and I were both right in some way. She was right that I had the talent and skill set to do this as a job, and I was right that I’d rather gargle with raw sewage than subject myself to that career path. Thus, the maxim outlined above.

You might have a talent, a skill or some general proclivities that push you into a realm of study or onto a career path, but keep in mind that just because you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should. If you don’t like something, don’t put yourself in a position where you dedicate your life to it.

In this regard, Dad had the better take on this topic: Find something you like doing and you’ll never work a day in your life.


You are not a fraud, even though you will feel like one: During my doctoral program, we had a class in which every faculty member in the school could come in and discuss his or her research or offer us advice. Of all the advice I got at that point, a couple stuck with me, including this one from Dr. Stephanie Craft:

A few years into your career, you are going to look around and panic because you think that you are a fraud. You will worry that you aren’t good enough or smart enough or whatever and you figure that it’s only a matter of time before everyone else figures this out, too. You then start counting the days until the entire illusion you’ve built will shatter and you won’t know what to do.

Don’t worry. It’s not true. You are not a fraud. You will be able to push past this.

A few years ago, I read about this concept called “imposter syndrome” that essentially captures this whole notion perfectly. It happens to a lot of people and it’s not something you can necessarily dodge in advance of its arrival. When it hit me, it didn’t matter how much work I had done, how well I had done at that work or what everyone else thought about how awesome I was. All that mattered was that I figured I’d eventually get caught short and revealed as something between a carnival huckster and a guy selling snake oil out of the back of a covered wagon.

The one thing that made the difference was remembering what Dr. Craft told me and realizing her prescience on this fraud fear arriving also made it likely that she was right that I could beat it.


Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: If your parents tell you that they knew everything when they were your age or that they had a job or that they knew their destiny, I’ve got two words for you: “Reality Bites.” This movie came out 25 years ago, or roughly around the time many of your parents were finishing up their college careers and looking around for whatever that next stage of life would provide. This movie really captured the post-collegiate zeitgeist better than almost anything else at the time, and it provides you with the perfect time capsule to look at what your parents dealt with.

You have Lelaina, Winona Ryder’s character, who was working as a young assistant producer for a cheesy morning show where the host (John Mahoney) treated her like crap.  When she got fired for perhaps the best on-air prank possible, she tried to find a job in her field, only to realize that she couldn’t get hired anywhere. Her father thought her generation had no work ethic. She craps all over her friend Vickie for offering her a job at The Gap, and falls into the bell jar of trying to find meaning in life via a “psychic partner” phone line. It only gets weirder from there (although the final love connection she makes is really too Hollywood for its own good).

If you strip away that last part, you realize that this generation didn’t know anything either, and I say that as PART OF IT. Sure, she fell in love at the end, which is pretty much what the film industry was selling at that point, but she didn’t have a job, was dead broke, had to use her father’s gas card to pay bills and there was no sense she was figuring it out. (And yes, that’s why reality really does bite.) Still, that generation eventually dug in, figured something out and managed to build a life that produced you.

Whatever they tell you about their origin story, view it through the prism of “Reality Bites” and you’ll probably be closer to reality.

The Life, Death and Rebirth of The Daily Cardinal: A Reminder of How We Still Need to Keep All Student Media Alive

Cardinal T-Shirt

The other student newspaper’s staffers put our failings on their front page. When we saved the paper from ruin, we put their front page on a T-shirt.

The Daily Cardinal gave me my entire life.

And 24 years ago today, it almost died.

I honestly intended not to write this today, as the story is old and threadbare at this point. When I tell it, I feel like the grandfather at Thanksgiving who tells the same story each year, only to experience the eye rolls and deep sighs at the table. But this time, something more important than commemoration is at stake, because the Cardinal’s story may be one of the last of its kind in student media, and that is a problem we must address.

Since 1892, The Daily Cardinal has served as a student newspaper and media resource for the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, making it the sixth-oldest student daily paper in the country. William Wesley Young launched it on April 4 of that year, and staffers long after his departure told stories of him racing his horse down the street with his proofs, hoping to make the printing deadline.

Since Young’s time, the paper has turned out more quality journalists, Pulitzer winners, entrepreneurs and legends that to start a list here would guarantee this post would go on forever and yet still omit numerous important people. On April 4, 1992, the paper celebrated its 100th anniversary, toasting these people and the thousands of others who had written, photographed, drawn, designed, sold, distributed and pressed it over that time.

Three years later on Feb. 7, 1995, the paper closed.

At the time, nobody on staff knew for sure why it wouldn’t print the next day or what led to the “reorganization” the paper’s administration tried to play it off as. We found out the next day, as all the other papers in the city seemed to know the truth: We were broke. We owed our printers more than $30,000 and they refused to print without the resolution of that debt. We also owed money to dozens of other organizations and companies. We couldn’t even get our lawyer to help us figure things out because we owed his law firm money.

According to Allison Hantschel’s incredible history on the Cardinal, when the debts were tallied and the cash on hand measured, the paper owed more than $137,700 and had $43.71 in its checking account.

It was both way too real and almost completely unbelievable at the same time.

Over the next two months, the publisher, general manager and sales manager all quit. Board members spent a lot of time in meetings, scrambling to find out what had happened, how it happened and who was to blame for it. Most of the staff left and at one point, there were basically three people left in the office.

I was one of them. I had been elected city editor about six weeks earlier. After “The Shutdown” I was responsible for trying to bill an entire year worth of advertising with the goal of paying off our debts and closing the paper “with honor,” as one of our board members used to say.

At one point, the other two people, also former editorial staffers, came to me and asked for my key to the office. They were done, tired and broken. They just wanted to go home. The plan was to turn in the keys to the board, shutter the place and go on with life. For reasons I still can’t explain, I gave them an old key that didn’t work anymore. They locked up the office and left. Once they were gone, I went back in and finished the billing.

For the next six months, it was life on a flaming high wire, as a skeleton crew of former staffers and crazy people worked to pump life back into what everyone else saw as a rotting corpse. Money came in, debts were paid and disasters continued to emerge. Every day, it was a sense of “We’re probably dead, but let’s see what we can accomplish today.”

I skipped six weeks worth of class, spending hours and days at the paper. (I don’t recommend that approach.) My two best friends, neither of whom were working at the paper at the time of “The Shutdown,” came back to rebuild the paper. It was like climbing a greased flagpole in a blizzard, but eventually it worked. “If we ever print again,” became “When we print again.”

On Sept. 1, 1995, the paper published again. It hasn’t stopped since.

Without The Cardinal, I never would have gotten a job at the Wisconsin State Journal shortly after the relaunch. Without that job, I never would have gotten a chance to teach at the college level. Those two experiences gave me just enough value that George Kennedy hired me to work at Mizzou three years after that. Without that, I don’t get a doctorate, become a student media adviser, work as a professor, publish books or a dozen other things that make my life my life.

Beyond the journalism experiences, The Cardinal introduced me to my wife, my two best friends, the godparents of my child and the people who would make me a godparent. It gave me a home and a life that I never would have had during college otherwise.

The reason I decided to write about this today is because my story is interesting but not unique. Student media has provided countless students experiences like the one I had. College students with half-baked ambitions and a shaky sense of self cross the threshold of newsrooms all across this country and find themselves every day. They learn skills, ply their trade and grow into amazing members of The Fourth Estate. They also find true friends and a surrogate family. Calling a student publication “an activity” or “a club” is like calling Godzilla “a lizard:” It’s true, but wildly inaccurate and extremely reductive.

It also occurred to me that The Cardinal’s story isn’t unique in one way, but is becoming more and more rare in another. As I was rolling through one of my feeds today, I saw this article on Drexel University’s student newspaper, The Triangle. The paper ran into financial difficulty and has likely published its last issue. Last week, I got word that The North Texas Daily, the student paper at the University of North Texas, had its funding cut and was heading into similarly dire financial straits.

Last year, we talked at length about The Sunflower at Wichita State University, which looked to be headed toward the end of its 123-year run. And, even though I don’t think I’m a jinx, our student newspaper found itself in a massive fundraising effort to keep the publication going. When it comes to publications ceasing to print or in danger of closing entirely, The Cardinal seemed to be ahead of its time. And, to borrow a phrase from a friend, it’s a club nobody wants to be a member of and we don’t want any more members.

The unique aspect of The Cardinal, however, is that it found a way back home. The presses rolled again, a web presence emerged and students continued to take part in an important part of life. Thanks in large part to folks like Anthony Sansone, who essentially built The Daily Cardinal Alumni Association, the students there get additional financial help from former Cardinalistas. The staffers also get opportunities to learn from alumni as well, thanks to the DCAA’s mentorship and training programs.

I don’t know how many of these other programs are lucky enough to find support for their news operations, be it through university funds, alumni giving or some other miracle I would like to know more about. What I do know is that student media is too important to too many people to let it die quietly among budget cuts, shrinking ad revenue and “I’ll just read stuff on Twitter” shrugs.

Below is a list of student media outlets that have active fundraising efforts available online. As I continue to get more names and links, I’ll continue to update them here. (Feel free to contact me via the form on this site.) Please spread the word and contribute if you can. As the folks at The Triangle noted, if everyone on Drexel’s campus gave a buck, the paper could run for a year.

Keep student media alive.

Become a “non-denominational skeptic:” Three follow-up thoughts on the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation

Nothing reduces the overall productivity of my life like watching people I know lose their mind on social media. In the aftermath of the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” video, the “second” video(s) that purport to show “the real story,” the half-dozen tweeted videos showing high school boys acting badly in the area of the Lincoln Memorial and everyone’s “No, YOU’RE the one who doesn’t get it” posts, it’s a miracle I had time to bash my head repeatedly into my desk and pray for the sweet release of death.

Rest assured, though, that concussion was worth it…

With the hope of salvaging something of value out of that lost time (and head wound), please consider this follow up to yesterday’s post on this topic that might help you as student journalists:


“Pretty Sure” isn’t what we’re aiming for

One of the longest and most difficult arguments I had was with a journalist for whom I have a great amount of respect. She posted an 8-second video found via Twitter that had a young man (I’m guessing teens) say, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.” The statement is appalling and the behavior inexcusable. Here is the capture of the Tweet:


I have no problem calling the kid out. I have no problem with this video being used to exemplify toxic masculinity. I have no problem if you want to rip on the kid for being a Bengals fan either. However, when pressed about how she knew this kid was part of the group from Covington Catholic High School, here is her response:

Covington Rape 2

So in other words, “What I just stated as a fact doesn’t really have to be a fact if it represents the broader truth I want to call attention to.” My friend noted that this isn’t really a problem:

I also saw in more than one video that those students were wearing MAGA hats mocking that Native man. They may or may not be the same boys who were harassing women, but it fits as a pattern of behavior in the same area on the same day with the same type of attire. Sometimes we can look outside and say it’s raining without having the National Weather Service confirm it.

My concern, however, is that the original post explicitly stated these are COVINGTON STUDENTS. Whether they are or not doesn’t make the “rape” kid’s words any more or less offensive, but if you state something as a fact, it damned well needs to be one. That’s doubly true if you’re a journalist and/or if legal action could come into play.

I doubt the rain would sue for defamation if you called it “drizzle” or the National Weather Service would sue if you didn’t get verify that this wasn’t “mixed precipitation.” However, I could easily see a kid’s parents or a school file suit if you’re wrong on this one.

The point is: If you publish content that states something is a fact, you have to be sure it is a fact. I’m trying to imagine if I had come back to the newsroom at the State Journal and told our managing editor that I was “pretty sure” about something I put into a story that’s now been called into question. Or that “I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t need it to be” for the larger truth I’m trying to tell. I imagine Cliff’s reaction would have been like this, only slightly less nuanced:

If you’re not sure, you haven’t finished the job. Either become sure or don’t publish it as a fact.


Become a “non-denominational skeptic”

It’s easy to call BS on things you don’t like or when information comes from a source you tend to distrust. It’s hard to accept facts when they run contrary to what you want to believe. This is the unfortunate byproduct of living in a society in which people now feel entitled to not only their own opinions and own sources of information but also their own reality. This makes doing objective, fair and factually accurate journalism difficult and exceedingly frustrating.

I’ve interviewed people with whom I share little in common and in some cases for whom I held nothing but contempt. There was a firefighter who handed out anti-gay literature while on the job. There was the leader of a Wisconsin branch of the KKK. There was the head of an organization that pressed back against any attempt to have anything religious near anything secular.

I also interviewed people with whom I empathized, sympathized and just flat-out liked. There was the mother whose 17-year-old daughter died when her car crashed into a tree. There was the owner of a jewelry store who gave away a diamond ring to a less-fortunate woman near Christmas. There was the fire chief who was trying to fire the guy who passed out the anti-gay literature.

That said, whether I liked them or disliked them didn’t matter. My job was to dig and poke and make sure what I put out in the public sphere under my byline was factually accurate. Just because something fit what I perceived to be the truth didn’t mean I should treat it with kid gloves. Also, just because I didn’t like someone’s position on something, it didn’t follow that they were lying about everything.

If you fall into the “trust the nice guy/gal” trap, you can end up like this scene from “Shattered Glass:”

A good way to keep yourself from letting your personal feelings shade your approach to journalism is to become a non-denominational skeptic. (I don’t mean this in the religious fashion, but more in terms of deciding not to pick sides.) Check out EVERYTHING with the same level of vigor. Treat EVERY statement as though it must pass rigorous fact-checking before it is published, regardless of how much you believe it to be the case.

If you treat content provided to you by your best friend and your worst enemy with the same level of skepticism, you’ll make your work much stronger and you’ll worry a lot less about the bottom falling out on you at any point.


Pushing for accuracy is not excusing behavior

“How can you be excusing this behavior?” someone asked me.

The person had taken issue with the fact that I wasn’t ready to fully accept that the kid making the “rape” comment was from Covington Catholic. I also wasn’t going to accept the statement that a group of teenage boys offensively cat-calling a woman were from their either because I didn’t see proof of either statement.

This person’s point was that, in calling for something beyond “the person posting the video said so,” I was essentially saying, “Hey, that’s fine.”

My point was that I needed to know HOW this person came to the conclusion that THIS PARTICULAR group of idiotic twerps was from THAT SPECIFIC school. In the “drumming” video, you could see school apparel on multiple people. In the “rape” video, I didn’t see anything tying the school to the kid. I also saw a mix of teen boys and girls, which struck me as odd, as Covington is an all-boys school. There was also an image in the original video that had a kid wearing gear from another school, so it wasn’t clear they were ALL from Covington.

And as far as the “cat-calling” video, the blur of guys and the 8-second walk-by gave me no sense that this was anything more than the videographer’s assumption these kids were from that school after the “drumming” video went viral.

In no way was I excusing lousy behavior. In no way was I saying that if these kids weren’t from Covington, it was totally cool that they acted like jerks. What I was saying was facts matter, so let’s get them right. If you can show me how you came to that conclusion and I can see your point, fine. I’m with you. If not, I’m not going to extrapolate just because we know the other kids came from that school.

Asking for accuracy doesn’t make you a bad person and isn’t condoning anything.

When you deal with controversial topics or report on sensitive issues, you might have to ask questions that are impolite or that could cause people to chafe a bit. This used to happen to me when I had to report on people who had died and family members were trying to craft a narrative. Asking, “I’m sorry, but I can’t find any proof that Bill won the Congressional Medal of Honor. How are you so sure he did?” when building an obituary can make you feel awkward. I had to ask the mother of that dead 17-year-old if she was aware her daughter was legally drunk while driving, because she had made a statement contrary to that. It sucked.

That said, I had to get stuff right.

If I published a story and erroneously called a man convicted of rape “a convicted murderer,” I would need to run a correction because it’s not true. That doesn’t make me an apologist for the guy. It doesn’t tell the readers, “Hey, this guy’s pretty OK.”

What it says is that I want to get the facts right.

Be “Marshmallow Alert:” Four more things that will prevent your first media-writing class from sucking

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since many places start up again on Jan. 7, here’s a post to help start up the new year. We will return to our regular posting schedule next week. -VFF)

A year or two ago, I tried to be inspirational for new students who were entering their first media-writing course with a post on the “Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking.” As you can tell by the headline, inspiration isn’t my forte.

Still, with the start of the new year, new semester and new set of classes for many of you, feel free to flip back to the previous version and then enjoy these Filak-isms to help add some merriment (and some thinking points) to your first couple days :

Be “Marshmallow Alert” in Class: I have always taught in small labs because writing, reporting and editing courses were set up that way wherever I worked. I also had the benefit of classrooms where I could see everything students were doing on their monitors and phones. Thus, when I noticed people were screwing around, I could call them out by name (another benefit of small classes) and they would re-engage pretty easily.

That didn’t mean some students didn’t try to engage every electric device they owned short of a curling iron and a Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset to avoid paying attention to me, but I did my best. (My “best” somehow included ripping the power cable out of the back of an iMac and once texting a young lady’s boyfriend three poop emojis and a snowflake after snatching her phone in mid-text.)

However, when I ended up having to teach a mini-pit class with 50 or so students, I wasn’t able to apply that same level of personal call outs and electronic monitoring, so I went a little old school in my solution. I built a marshmallow gun out of PVC piping and loaded ‘er up for each class. When I saw someone dinking around after a couple  warnings, I fired off a round or two in that person’s general direction. That really freaked them out.

By the time that class was done, I was a regular Annie Oakley. It was almost sad that they became so attentive that they didn’t even want to challenge my accuracy any more. That said, the class started participating a lot more and started doing a bit better on graded stuff.

The point is, don’t just vaguely pay attention in class. Pay attention as if a momentary distraction could get you drilled with a tiny white pellet of sugar and then mocked by a room filled with your peers.

Don’t just be alert. Be “Marshmallow Alert.”


Use the “Buffet vs. Cost” Theory:

Question: Why is it that so many people eat to the point of exploding while at a buffet?

Apparently, stomach pains, bloating and that constant regurge of generic-soft-serve-vanilla-with-Gummy-Bears taste are all part of getting one’s “money’s worth” out of  a buffet. If this were a sit-down restaurant, these people wouldn’t eat half that much (except for my kid, who would eat the entire bread basket and hide crackers in her socks), but at a buffet, hey, let’s go for death!

When it comes to your education, particularly a writing course in your area of study, you are paying a ridiculous amount of money, or at least a lot more than what the Golden Corral will charge you on “Shrimp Night.” With that in mind, it’s baffling to me that students skip classes, drift off in class and refuse to answer any questions. That’s like going to the Coral (or your own regional buffet of choice) and saying, “Let me pay double for this, but all I want is one of those sprigs of parsley and a cracker, please.”

To heck with that. Gorge yourself.

Ask questions in class, be that annoying kid who always has an anecdote for every example the professor has, visit office hours to go over your graded work to find areas of improvement, color-tab the crap out of your AP style book and more. Get your money’s worth out of this, especially since you’ll actually benefit from the stuff you learn in the writing class. (This is in no way meant to disparage that “Quest Class” on Ancient Babylonian Calf Roping you are forced to take in your Gen Ed program, but trust me when I tell you that media writing is a skill employers will heavily value.)


Embrace Your Inner 4-year-old: Anyone who has spent more than 35 seconds in the presence of a 4-year-old knows the only question any of them seems to ask is “Why?” It eventually gets to the point that you want to hand the kid a fork and tell him/her to go play with the toaster. The thing is, though, they really want to understand stuff that they don’t understand. They don’t get why they can’t stay up past 8 p.m., watch another cartoon or give the hamster a bath in the toilet. They have this sense that those are all logical propositions and they really feel like the adults should have to justify the “No” answer to those requests.

When it comes to your media writing class, embrace your inner 4-year-old, but do it in the right way and at the right time. Students have no problem asking “WHY?” when it comes to things like “Why is my grade so low if I turned in almost everything?” or “Why do we have to take the midterm when it’s so nice outside?” (Two questions I’ve actually heard.) However, when it comes to things that are more about learning and improving and less about point deductions and the one sunny day a year we get in Wisconsin, I have found students are quieter than a church mouse on Sunday.

Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about your work. Don’t ask questions about the grade, because, as we explained in the previous edition of this list, your grade will not haunt you for the rest of your life. However, if you don’t understand why you can’t write a news story in chronological order or why it pays to have at least one or two of the W’s (and maybe even the H) in your lead, you’re going to be in trouble.

Talk to your professor whenever you get work back and you don’t understand what made something wrong. Don’t focus on the points or the grade, but rather on the underlying rationale behind the negative outcomes and you’ll be able to improve moving forward.


Now is the Time to Care: I know this is cheating because I pulled it from the last list, but it bears repeating. I can’t remember a semester like the one I just had where students treated the final grades I filed as the start of a bargaining session. (It literally felt like something out of contract negotiation: “Dr. Filak, I see you have proposed a D for me here. What I’d like to do is counter with a B- and see where we can find some common ground…”) The time to care about this stuff is now, so look at what it is that you can do to keep yourself on the right side of the best outcomes possible.

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

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

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

Semester Wrap: Let me know how things went

With finals week wrapping up out here, it’s time to take a break from the blog until the start of the next semester. Feel free to pop in on occasion, as I might have something happening here or there between now and the latter part of January, but the daily grind will officially grind to a halt today.

INSTRUCTORS: If you have found a hole in your curriculum that you would like filled before next term, please contact me and I’ll work on filling it over the break. Also, if you have any questions, comments or concerns about the blog, the books or me in general, feel free to hit me up as well.

STUDENTS: I hope this has been helpful to you. If not, let me know WHY that was the case and I’ll work on fixing it before next term. Simply saying “You suck” isn’t going to help me and, besides, I know that already… If you like something and want to see more of it, you can tell me that, too.

May you have a fun holiday season with whatever it is you do when you’re not here.

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

Dear students, Don’t let Everett Piper tell you that you suck.

For reasons past my understanding, this thing is making the rounds again:

The President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University gave a lecture to students they’ll never forget. Recently a student complained about a sermon that made him feel guilty and blamed the school for making students feel uncomfortable. This is not uncommon. Many universities now are so afraid of offending even one student, that political correctness has run amuck.

However, this University is based on religion and so one would expect that discipline, good character and personal accountability would be a big part of the curriculum.

Everett Piper, who is the President of the school, wrote a letter to the students admonishing them that playing the victim, blaming others and not admitting mistakes is not a way to live a productive and meaningful life. Here is the letter titled “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”

Piper’s open letter originally made waves in 2015 when he first posted it and it suddenly went viral, thanks to his leveraging of social media and the talk-show circuit. Every so often, someone finds it again and posts it to a listserv or a Facebook feed and it starts to catch fire again.

Professors often deal with a wide array of students, but it is usually the best and worst ones that make the greatest of impressions. Thus, we tend to recall the kid who skipped seven weeks of class and then showed up for the final or the guy who swears his grandmother died 19 times in the semester to justify his frequent absences. Get about four professors in a room around this time of year and a game of, “I bet you can’t top this” will inevitably happen, as we tell tales about student baffling student behavior.

That said, this letter is total crap for a number of reasons. For students out there reading this, and who are tired of getting dumped on, here are a couple points to ponder before you let a guy like Everett Piper make you feel miserable during finals week:


Recall the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers Day

Johnny Sain, a longtime pitcher and pitching coach, had a disdain for Old Timers Day, when out-of-shape old players would return and tell stories of their glory. He captured the reason perfectly and with a phrase you should always remember:

“The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I don’t know Everett Piper personally, but if he’s like every other human adult I ever met, I’m fairly confident he wasn’t perfect at the age of 19. If I had a nickel for every mistake I made, stupid thing I said, dumb question I asked and wrong position I held in my college years, I could buy Earth and evict Piper from it. The point is to learn from those mistakes and help other people who are likely to make those mistakes as well.

I occasionally get a question that goes something like, “Wow, you work with college students? Don’t you ever feel jealous of them for (whatever freedom they supposedly have to drink like a fish, hook up every night or just have a metabolism that doesn’t reflexively add inches to my waistline every day)?”

The answer, “No and HELL no.” I remember living off of buckets of Ramen and those frozen chicken things that were probably part cat, but were 10 for $5 at the local convenience store. I remember having to decide between another beer and laundry money. I remember the anxiety associated with asking people out, trying not to screw up a relationship and having to listen to The Cure for hours on end after each break up.

Would I care for a return to crappy apartments where the heat was controlled in only one unit, brown water that came out of the tap and a basement that smelled of god-knows-what? No thank you. I survived the first time and I’m lucky I got out with 10 fingers and 10 toes. Remembering that is what drives me to help you get better.

Too many people eventually get older and develop selective amnesia, thus allowing them to tell kids, “When I was YOUR AGE, I (never/always) did (whatever)…” and really believe it. I’d bet every dollar in my pocket against whatever Piper has in his that there were times when he whined as a student or groused about something being unfair or complained about how he felt without thinking about how it would sound to other people.

It’s not that we have too many trigger warnings or that too much stuff is gluten free or that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without starting a culture war these days. Those are all strawmen, just like Piper’s student at the front of his letter.

The fact is, there have always been good things and bad things that people exalted or wailed about in life. It’s just the people doing it now have forgotten how much they hated hearing about their grandparents explaining how ungrateful “kids in your generation are these days,” which is why they do it to other people.

Keep that in mind if you ever end up the president of a university and you have an urge to yell at a kid for standing on your lawn.


Consider the Source

In journalism, we teach people to look at the source of the information before we consider how much weight to give it. Sure, from the outside, Everett Piper may look like the shining beacon of greatness upon the hill of glory, but consider the following information before you worry what he thinks about you:

He grew up in a town of about 8,000 people and attended a nearby private school of about 2,000 people in late 1970s/early 1980s, when you weren’t required to hock an internal organ to pay tuition. Upon graduation in 1982, he took off for the work world, as you can see below:


So he graduated at the age of 22/23, immediately went into academic administration and never left. Not exactly the story his university tells about him:

A native of Hillsdale Michigan, Dr. Piper grew up in a family that valued hard work, a mindset he carried with him as he moved from industry into pursuing a college degree.

Not sure how much “industry” work he did between the ages of 18 and 23 while in school, but he wasn’t a returning student, or a single parent, or a GI Bill kid, or any of those other kinds of folks I see on a daily basis who work their asses off to survive. He might or might not be the prototypical example of a guy who thinks he hit a triple when he was actually born on third base, but he’s also isn’t a latter-day “Rudy,” either.

Piper’s proud defense of his university not being a daycare seems a bit suspect, as he is making money off the deal. He turned his “catchphrase” into a nice cottage industry of castigating the youth and yelling about the snowflakes on his lawn.

The university even promotes the purchase of this stuff on its website. (What was that story about Jesus and the money changers in the temple? Oh, yeah…)

Also, consider this line from his letter to the masses:

If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

(The emphasis on those two statements is mine.)

If the irony of that first line doesn’t send your hater-ade filled soul into laughing fits, I don’t know what will. It’s easy to “arrogantly lecture” people, as Piper has clearly shown with his letter doing exactly that. Also, instead of dumping all over the kid who came to you with this concern about a Bible passage you likely understood far better than he did, why not help that little snowflake “humbly learn” what it meant instead of using the kid as a strawman to bolster your self-serving position?

(Side note: When someone tells me that something “actually” happened and “I am not making this up” in successive paragraphs at the front of a story, I’d bet money that person is making something up.)

(It’s even more amazing than when you have the ability to monetize your grousing…)

The second line (and any other similar phrase) always annoys me when it comes from people in a position of advantage. When is the last time University President and Almighty Deity of Knowledge Everett Piper was called out for his horsepucky? Probably back when people were rocking popped collars and jamming out to Duran Duran. It’s easy to say that people need to be confronted when you possess the power and position to do so, without fear of retribution.

And if all that hasn’t convinced you, read his Twitter feed. The guy has a transphobic Chuck Norris meme up there (as one of his many anti-LGBTQ tweets), called incoming house Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a clueless child and referred to universities (all except for his, I’m guessing) as “bigoted, Intolerant, ill-liberal, inconsistent and closed minded.” Not exactly the bastion of intellectual argumentation I’d expect from a guy who reflexively calls himself “Doctor” more times than you’d hear it on a Thompson Twins’ Greatest Hits album.


Don’t Let These Guys Win

The problem isn’t that Everett Piper exists or that he has created a nice little business out of shaming college students with the tone of a high-strung school marm. The problem is that he isn’t alone.

Each generation likes to blame the one before for its problems and dump all over the one after it for not being perfect. As mentioned earlier, people like to get together and complain about how “a student did something you wouldn’t believe…”

Like any other stereotype, it contains a kernel of truth. Like any other stereotype, you can beat it. And like any other stereotype, you should call it out when you hear it.

Don’t let Piper and his ilk decide that you damned kids and your hippity-hoppity music are ruining this world and that if we could just get “Happy Days” back on the air, life would be good again. Don’t let this guy sell books off of the assumption that you will crumble or melt or whatever the comparative is that Piper or the next chucklehead uses to deride your generation. When someone decides to grump in your general direction, use your finely honed interviewing skills to pick apart their self-serving rubbish and demonstrate your intellectual journalistic superiority.

Sure, there are self-absorbed twerps in college who will claim their goldfish’s death merits a six-week extension on an already late paper. There are also dingleberries out there who misapply triggers and trigger warnings to mean anything they would prefer to avoid, as opposed to the actual medical situation they are.  There are plenty of examples of students that make us shake our heads until we develop neck cramps.

However, when you see something like this, written by someone like Piper, take a moment and smile. Think to yourself, “Gee, it must be so sad to think so little of the people you are supposed to help that your best approach to dealing with ONE QUESTION is to publicly rip AN ENTIRE GENERATION to shreds with a letter and then go write a book to pat yourself on the back for being superior to anyone under the age of 22.”

Then, go back to working hard to be better than this guy is. Commit yourself to being the antithesis of what he purports you to be. In other words:

3 reasons why censoring student media is the dumbest thing you can do as an administrator

The students at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, just got a top-notch education in the area of journalism, censorship and the power of shame this week. The school newspaper, The Herald, published an in-depth, investigative story that details the questionable transfer of several football players to another high school. The story also highlighted some questionable behavior on the part of administrators and athletic officials in regard to this situation.

Naturally, the school district was shocked by this, so district officials decided to kill the messenger:

An Arkansas school district suspended its high school newspaper and threatened to fire the teacher who advises it after student journalists wrote a story criticizing the transfer of five football players to a rival high school.

“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News.

Censorship of any newspaper flies in the face of freedom of the press, however, administrators often feel they have the right to do so for a couple erroneous reasons:

  1. They are the adults. The students are kids. They believe that in the power dynamic, adult trumps kid.
  2. The Hazelwood decision, which administrators have come to misinterpret as carte blanche to censor.
  3. The principle of “ostrich syndrome,” in which people believe if they stick their head in the sand, nothing bad can happen. Thus, if we can just shut people up and nobody can see the problem, it doesn’t exist.

What followed was pure outrage from pretty much the rest of the media world. Buzzfeed News, the Associated Press and Teen Vogue covered the story as did the local publications in Arkansas. The Student Press Law Center got involved and agreed to repost the stories as a public service so anyone could read them.

Eventually, the school district caved, and the students were allowed to put the story back online. Communications director Rick Schaeffer explained the district’s rationale in a particularly bloodless way:

“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” he wrote. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.

In other words, this only “merited thorough review” after you played a game of chicken with the students and not only did they fail to swerve, but they were driving a tank and you were on a bicycle.

Nice save.

Look, the larger problem here is not that the students had to go through all of this, but that this could have been easily avoided if the administration understood the law, realized how media works or just Googled “censoring HS paper goes to hell.” To inspire future administrators to avoid these problems (and also to help you find ways to push back against censorship), here are a few thoughts that should help keep the important stories front and center, despite the ways in which they embarrass school folks:


Stop Fighting Fire With Gasoline

The whole reason that administrators attempt to censor student media is because whatever the students published is drawing embarrassing attention to the school. Administrators surmise that if they can kill the message (or the messenger), the attention will stop coming and things will go back to normal.

Simply put, that’s as stupid as trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline.

The first thing that a group of media students will do when you attack them is to make a bigger issue out of it. If they’re good enough to pull together an investigation like this one, they’re not going down without a fight and they clearly have no fear. The more you try to crack them in half, the stronger their resolve will be. That means… Wait for it… more negative attention on your school.

Now, not only does your school look like garbage for whatever the students uncovered, now EVERYBODY is looking at what they uncovered. Furthermore, additional stories are now emerging about the attempt to censor the publication and how lousy the administration is in attempting to beat up on these kids.

People who never even HEARD of your city or your school now know it for all the wrong reasons. Truth be told, even though Springdale, Arkansas is “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I never knew it existed until this censorship debacle hit my Facebook feed.

If you want to avoid problems like this, don’t let stupid things happen in your school in the first place. If you want to avoid making them worse, don’t compound the original stupidity with more of your own.


Student Media Kids Have Bodyguards

Administrators are the kings of the castle when it comes to the school itself. Who gets a hall pass, who gets early release, what the dress code needs to be and more are all at the behest of the principal or other similar administration officials. That sense of power can lead to all sorts of things, not the least of which is the assumption that might makes right.

OK, but what happens when you aren’t the strongest person there anymore? What happens when the kids realize this and figure, “Hey, we just need a bodyguard…”

The bad news for you is that they already HAVE those kinds of folks and they aren’t remotely afraid of you. You lack power over them and they have no problem saying, “OK, you wanna play? Let’s play.” These “bodyguards” are folks like the Student Press Law Center, which has a mission and purpose to stand up for students getting messed around by overreaching administrators. These “bodyguards” are journalists at the local and national media outlets, who value the kids’ efforts and disdain censorship of all kinds. (Plus, they probably remember getting messed over by an administrator during their time as students and didn’t like feeling helpless.)

If you decide to step into the ring with the students and do something dumb like this, the students will have plenty of people at the ready who will do everything in their power to make you really regret it.


This Is Not Your Father’s Censorship

A few years back, I spoke to a school board in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where the student publication had been censored and the last line I left them with is one that should ring in your ears forever: “Control is an illusion.”

In the days of Hazelwood (1980s), when an administrator dropped the hammer on a student publication, that was pretty much the end of it. If the paper wasn’t allowed to print something, the students had virtually no other way to get that story out to the public. You were the gatekeeper and you slammed the gate.

That’s not how anything works anymore.

The minute you decide to censor the paper, pull the piece off of the paper’s website or whatever else you think will stop the story from gaining traction, the kids have 12,148 other ways to get this thing out there.

Case in point: The Herald’s story was reposted to the SPLC website so everyone on Earth could read it. People in the student media community were tweeting links to the story everywhere. Someone took a photo of the print edition and it was making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. I’m sure you could get a T-shirt made with the whole story on it at CustomInk, if you put your mind to it…

The point is, control has always been an illusion, but now more than ever, you have no control over content. The more suppression you attempt to impose, the harder people will work to share the information you want to suppress.

In summary, you need to realize that trying to censor student media these days is like trying to grab a fist full of Jell-O: The harder you squeeze, the less successful you are. If you really want this thing to go away, do the smart thing: Applaud the work of the students, tell whoever asks that you’re looking into it and fix the problem if you can.

It’s the adult thing to do.

Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.


After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.