Throwback Thursday: You Earn The Fungus on Your Shower Shoes

To help people find some of the older posts buried deeply in the history of the blog, we decided to do a few “Throwback Thursday” posts throughout the year.

Today’s “throwback” came from a conversation I had with a student, who told me that another professor explained that “nobody” writes in a certain simple way anymore. He wondered if he had wasted his time learning the 5W’s and 1H, tight leads, the inverted pyramid and more. I found myself telling him this story, so I dug up the post to share with everyone else.

Enjoy!

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


 

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.

 

 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” How to find your path from journalism classes to career success

With the start of school out here today, we’re bringing back the daily blogging. If you have any topics you’d like covered on this site, just hit us up on the “Contact Us” form and we can make that happen.

We’ll get into all sort of journalistic nuance later in the term, ranging from horrific leads to student media situations. However, as with most semesters, we start today with that slow-roll, first-day stuff that most students just want to get over. (Everyone except for that really enthusiastic kid who chose to sit in the front row and has already deemed himself/herself to be the “assistant to the teaching assistant,” much to the annoyance of everyone else in the class.)

The get-to-know-you part of class roll call often comes with the question, “So what do you see yourself doing when you graduate?” When I ask that, I tend to get one of two answers:

  1. “I have had a life plan since exiting the birth canal and please let me share it with you in excruciating detail!”
  2. “I don’t even know what I’m having for lunch today, let alone what I want to do with the rest of my life. Clearly, I am a failure, so please move on to someone else.”

I’d probably estimate about an 80/20 split in those answers, with a few “I’m pretty sure I know where I’m going” answers sprinkled in. The 80% fit into the latter category and they often feel like kids who lost their moms at Walmart: They’re wandering around in a panic as everyone else seems to know exactly where to go and they want to burst into tears.

The truth is, most of us don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. Even after we do get there, we know full well that it wasn’t a detailed plan or a series of savvy moves on our part that got us there. In some cases, it was finding a passion where we least expected it. In other cases, it was finding out that we had a set of skills we didn’t know we had that tied nicely to a career. In even other cases, it was a fortuitous bounce, a chance encounter or just dumb luck that got us where we’re going.

To help you out as you start school this year, I asked the hivemind for some advice for you on how to get where you’re going, even if you don’t know where you’re going yet. Here are a few basic areas of thought:

LOOK FOR RESOURCES AROUND YOU:

The best way to figure out what is out there for you is to ask people who have a better sense of what is actually out there. Most colleges and universities have resources for you to help explore career paths, talk out ideas or generally feel your way around toward something that might yield gainful employment. Here’s a thought from a woman who worked with college students at a small liberal-arts school on the East Coast for a number of years:

Visit your career center. They have tons of tools to help guide you in a direction you might like!

A recent educational retiree also noted the importance of these kinds of places on campus:

Most college career centers have resources, including career assessments that students can use. Also, like what another person said about trying out jobs via internships. Volunteering, doing job shadowing, and evaluating yourself, your personality, interests, skills, etc. can give you directions. There has been a lot of research about careers and the John Holland career inventory, plus the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which gives a lot of valuable insight into careers that might fit. There are even websites that show specific careers to fit one’s personality types. I used to do a lot of this with high school students, where the stakes are not quite as high as college, but similar resources.

Even though this sounds like simple advice, it’s great advice for a simple reason: It works. The reason it works? Well, to borrow a phrase from the Farmers Insurance folks, the people there know a thing or two about the career market because they’ve seen a thing or two in it.

(To be fair, a lot of us would rather deal with the clowns than think about our impending career moves…)

INTERN AND EXPLORE:

A lot of folks think about the need for internships and our folks in the hivemind were no exception. Here are some thoughts from someone who always knew where she wanted to work and eventually got that job:

Get internships/experience in things you think you may be interested in. If you wait until you know 100%, you could be walking the stage at graduation with only retail or food service jobs on your resume. Exploring fields you’re interested in will help figure out if it’s a fit, help get some internships under your belt, and if you find it’s not the place you want to be, you’ll still likely learn/hone transferable skills that can be helpful in whatever you do decide on

The idea of poking around at other things, perhaps not exactly what you had wanted, also played a role for a sports broadcaster, who always wanted to be a sports broadcaster and is now an actual sports broadcaster:

Get a taste of different things so you find out what you don’t like. Sports people! Get out of the sports realm for just a moment. Sports jobs are tough to come by and local sports departments in TV, radio, and newspapers continue to get smaller. Don’t have tunnel vision, there are plenty of areas with a lot of opportunities and more money. “Get out there and make yourself known.” That’s a quote from ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir.

This guy tried a few things even as he pursued his key goal of entering sports just to make sure a) that he really liked sports and b) that he didn’t miss something he might have liked more. In the end, he might change jobs or fields, but at least he knew what he was getting into and that he was right about it.

Or as a broadcast professor noted: “Your 20s are for experimenting and for doing jobs you won’t necessarily want to do forever.

 

DON’T WORRY. BE HAPPY.

(To be fair, again, Bobby McFerrin hates this song now. It doesn’t represent his musical tastes or skills. Still, a lot of us who grew up when it was on the radio still think of him as that “whistling guy.”)

Telling someone not to worry is like telling someone to not think of a pink elephant: It creates a counterproductive outcome. However, people who have made it to where you want to go can give you some good advice about how they zigged and zagged their way to a positive outcome. Here’s a thought from an amazing young PR pro who almost went another way:

Well, before my sophomore year I nearly dropped out and changed my major to something that I can’t even remember. But sophomore year is when I got involved in PRSSA and many organizations and was the game changer for me. I think it’s not so much about the major you choose it’s about the journey you take to get the degree. You can always change fields down the road but get involved in college. You have the rest of your life to ask yourself what you want to be when you grow up.

A college professor had similar thoughts on this issue, as he found happiness running student media and teaching students how to make something of themselves:

Use college to get new and unique experiences to find something you enjoy working in. The most important goal is happiness.

That can seem a little too “pie in the sky” for a lot of us, given that what makes my kid happy these days is sleeping until noon and watching NetFlix. I’m not entirely sure there’s a career in that, or at least a path that would lead her to eventually not spend her life living in my basement. However, some jobs lead to more misery and some to less. It’s all about what you enjoy, as a researcher who started in journalism and moved around noted:

Think about your role in your friend group and organizations. Do you come up the whole idea, do you plan the whole thing, do you get others excited? Then think about which subjects you’re strongest at (math, science, language). I love writing and thinking. I became a researcher. My brother is a planner and science person. He studied biology. He was a football coach, now medical sales.

The overall point here is that nobody really knows anything when it comes to what happens next. The kid in the front row with the plan? Ask that kid in ten years how it worked out and 80% of the time, it didn’t. (For the other 20 percent, feel free to actively dislike them and their inherited wealth.)

The advice here is based on personal experiences of people who walked the path you want to walk. They made it and you will too. At the very least, it’ll be better than living by these rules:

Have a great start to the semester. See you tomorrow.

3 takeaways from the Washington Post’s 579-word correction on a story about family farms

We have covered the issue of corrections here a few times, including the massive ones issued for the obituaries of politicians John McCain and Richard Lugar. At 135 words and 144 words, respectively, these pale in comparison to the correction the Washington Post recently issued on Korsha Wilson’s piece on black families trying to hold onto their ancestors’ farm land.

This correction covers 15 bullet points and 579 painful words.

To put that in perspective, consider this:

  • If you added the McCain and Lugar corrections together and DOUBLED them, the word count would still fall short of 579 words.
  • According to media coverage on the incident, the correction went on so long, it needed to be jumped in the print edition.
  • When I worked at a daily newspaper, we were taught that it was about 30 words to a column inch, which would make this correction 19.2 column inches. That is nearly twice the length of most stories I was allowed to write for meetings, breaking news stories and featurized obituaries at the time.
  • The correction is about one-fifth the size of the original story.

Longer narrative stories that deal in complex issues, especially historic ones, run a lot of risks when it comes to accuracy. People’s recollections sometimes run counter to other people’s memories. Nuance can be lost in the writing, thus leading to mistakes due to slips in verbiage. Even more, longer pieces that weave in multiple sources can feel like juggling Jell-O, leading the writer to attribute a statement to a wrong source or to make a cut-and-paste mistake.

Some of these pitfalls are at the core of Wilson’s piece, but they don’t account for the majority of the problems. Consider these corrections:

  • The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.
  • The number of children Freeman had with his second wife, Rebecca, was eight, not 10.
  • The partition sale of the Freeman estate was in 2016, not 2018, and it included 360 acres of the original 1,000, not 30 acres of the original 99.
  • Tashi Terry said, “Welcome to Belle Terry Lane,” not “Welcome to Belle Terry Farm.” The property is named Terry Farm.
  • Aubrey Terry did not buy 170 acres with his siblings in 1963; his parents bought the 150-acre property in 1961.
  • The eldest Terry brother died in 2011, not 2015.

  • Ownership of Freeman’s property was not transferred to heirs when Rebecca died. In fact, he used a trust before he died to divide his property among his heirs.

In other words, about half of the 15 bullet points involved simple fact-checking issues I would expect a student in a basic reporting class to be able to manage. Tom Jones at Poynter also noted the sloppy journalism, but said he thought the Post should get kudos for going to such great lengths to correct the record.

I would agree to a point, in that fixing mistakes is always a good idea. That said, not making so many mistakes would have been a better way to go with this. Wilson wasn’t a veteran staff member who got a pass on stringent editing because she was a known commodity. I would imagine that editors would drill down more deeply in a freelance piece to make sure it met the standards of the publication.

Also, Executive Editor Marty Baron’s pretty bland and opaque statement on the issue didn’t shed a lot of light on the issue:

“We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”

(And for a last piece of perspective, everything you read right to this point totals 579 words, the exact same length as the correction.)

The goal with this blog isn’t to beat up on people, but rather to help you learn from the mistakes of others. With that in mind, consider these thoughts:

  • Fred Vultee’s Theory on Drowning: Professor Fred Vultee of Wayne State University is an editing expert and a veteran journalist of the days in which smoking in the newsroom was common. We worked together at the Columbia Missourian back in the early 2000s, where he was fond of telling me (and anyone smart enough to listen) that, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was to treat small bits of copy (briefs, captions etc.) with the same care as the magnum opus stories that went on for scads of inches and wove together complex story lines.
    I liked to expand this to include the idea that it’s rarely the complex and nuanced issues of a painstakingly detailed story that lead to corrections, but rather the simple, stupid stuff you should have check on in the first place. This story exemplifies that with the mistakes on name spellings, dates and numbers.

 

  • Assume everything you wrote is wrong. Go prove yourself to be right: We talked about this one before, but it bears repeating. Fact checking is a vital aspect of what you do as a reporter. Sure, we could leave that to the editors, but with newsroom cuts and overworked staff, editors aren’t the safety net they used to be. (Case in point, this piece apparently went through the Post’s rigorous editing process and still ended up with more than a dozen points that needed correcting after the fact.)
    Write based on your notes, your recall and your research, but then edit the hell out of your work with the eye of a skeptic. Assume every fact is wrong until you can prove it right. (A former student of mine once interned at a place that required reporters to circle every verifiable fact and print out a piece of solid source copy to demonstrate its veracity.) If you read better on screen, edit it there. If you catch more stuff on a printed page, kill a tree or two if necessary. Whatever helps you examine your work clearly and with an eye toward detail, do it. You want to be able to point out to an editor exactly how you know you are right.

 

  • Get back up and try again: If you enter this business thinking you’ll never screw up, you have some wishful thinking happening in your head. A year or so back, I asked people in the hivemind about things they fouled up as journalists. These venerable writers, reporters, photographers and even professors noted a wide array of, “Oh crap…” moments that had each of us thinking, “There but by the grace of God go I…”People who were following the Post’s correction with the glee of an arsonist watching a four-alarm fire got their shots in on the writer for her work, with one noting:“At this rate, it is a wonder the author even got her name right. Speaking of which, the author of this hot mess is one Korsha Wilson… By the looks of what happened to Wilson’s Washington Post article, she should probably stick to writing about food.”

    Not to be rude here, but what a dick. Nothing says, “I’m a professional journalist” like kicking people when they’re down. And I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the writer of that insightful commentary likely has a correction or two in his writing history.

    We’re all going to screw something up at some point. I’m sure Korsha Wilson wanted to crawl into a hole and die when this story went south and her mistakes went viral. When I screwed up on a local level before things like this could spread beyond a print circulation area, that’s exactly how I felt each and every time I made a mistake. I feared making another mistake to the point that I was almost assured of making one, a syndrome that gave birth to my “handful of Jell-O” axiom.

    My hope for her is the same hope I have for any of you who screw up (read: everyone in journalism), which is that once you fix the mistake and you take your flogging, you persevere. Get up, dust yourself off and go back to work. The best way for people to forget you had a horrible moment is to have a few great ones.

“Journalism is never done. It’s just due.” (Embracing your “a-ha!” moment)

At the age of 19, I had one major goal that was driving my journalism education: Impress Steve Lorenzo.

Steve was the instructor of my first journalism writing class and he was pretty much exactly the guy I wanted to be: Smart, funny, talented and gifted. He had a way of grabbing the most chaotic sentences off the screens of our Mac Classic computers and crunching them down into incredible journalistic prose. He was able to reorder your messy chronology into a perfect inverted pyramid on the fly, never once stopping to ponder what he needed to do. The way you or I would wiggle a finger is how Steve would keyboard our work to perfection: It was as if journalism was attached to his central nervous system.

Of all the things he taught me, the most important came when time was running out during a lab exercise and I was one of the last people in the room. I was trying to make the words of a lead do what he said they needed to do, even as those words were being decidedly uncooperative. I was always looking for “another word for…” whatever it was I was trying to write. (I think it was an accident brief. You can only say “accident” or “crash” in so many ways…)

As Steve called out the minutes until our stuff was due, I kind of yelped out a phrase that I know I’ve heard at least a squillion times as an instructor: “But I’m not DONE yet!”

Steve’s response: “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.”

Whether he came up with that on his own or he borrowed it from someone else, I’ll never know. (I use this constantly and always do my best to disabuse students of the notion that I was smart enough to come up with it on my own.) However, that became the “a-ha!” moment for me that made journalism a lot less painful. (It still was painful, but not as much as it would have been had I not heard that bit of wisdom.)

His point was that you can always make something a bit better or a bit smoother or a bit clearer if you had five more minutes or 10 more months to work on it. However, the goal of journalism is to put forward the best possible representation of reality for your readers in the time you have available.

As I began to work deeper into journalism and then into journalism education, I took this to heart and used it to craft what I called my “90% rule.” The idea was that I wanted my writing to be 90% of the way to “as good as it’s gonna get” in two good swings: Draft one-Edit 1 and Draft 2-Edit 2.

After that, everything was a function of time and diminishing returns. I could spend six hours debating a comma that might make something .00001% better, but that’s a waste of time. That said, if I put in another hour and got it to 95%, that would be good if I had the hour to give. If not, at least 90% gets me to a point where I don’t embarrass myself.

For those of you still looking for your “a-ha!” moment or just feeling like you’re a 3-year-old who lost your mom at Walmart when you write, give this Columbia Journalism Review article a look. Dozens of top-notch journalists reveal when they learned a lesson they carry with them to this day. They share their “a-ha!” moments, with some being successes that inspired them while others were failures that left scars.

Another good read, especially if you’re the kind of person who can’t let go of a piece, is this take on perfectionism. A lot of students I know struggle to make something perfect, even when they aren’t entirely sure what it is they’re doing. That added investment and struggle is admirable, but it can also be devastating when they get the graded piece back and realize it seemed to be all for nought.

In any case, the best thing I can tell you about the “a-ha!” moment is it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You can’t go looking for it, but don’t worry.

It will find you eventually.

Unblock this: Modern advertising and why we hate it

According to the media-writing book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

AdBlock1

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

AdBlock3

AdBlock4

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

AdBlock6

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

AdBlock2

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

And finally:

AdBlock5

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RosendaleTshirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

In essence, writing that way is just the ticket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StripPrincipal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posting Schedule for Summer 2019

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

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

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

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

ZoePinball

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

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

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

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