Bid on these old-school type kits to help support the future of college journalism

I have said this at least 1,001 times, but it’s always true: Without student media opportunities, I don’t come close to having anything resembling the life I have now. I know that I’m not alone in this situation, given the thousands of students I’ve met throughout my time in the collegiate environment and the many college media advisers I consider my friends.

I also know that student media outlets are dealing with shrinking budgets, diminishing support and falling advertising sales. I’ve covered this situation here on the blog with Wichita State and I’m planning to write up something later this week on the situation at the University of North Texas, where the paper has been told to “wean” itself off of university support. I also dealt with financial disasters twice, once at the Daily Cardinal, where my work there landed me in a great book and once at the Advance-Titan, where I had a bunch of little… um… student government people coming after me. (Spoiler alert: Both papers survived and continue to prosper.)

No matter how far away I get from my college experience, The Daily Cardinal will always hold a special place in my heart. The students there get no financial support from the university and receive no pay for their editorial work. The paper survives on advertising revenue and money raised through the Daily Cardinal Alumni Association. I’ve given to the paper and the DCAA over the years, but this time I wanted to do something special, so here it is:

I came across a giant trove of old lead type kits that have to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years old. Each was boxed in a wooden case and labeled based on the point size, the typeface and the specs on the letters (uppercase, lowercase, both, bold etc.). These things go for a couple hundred bucks apiece in some cases, because people didn’t keep the small letters like 6 or 8 point fonts. (Larger point sizes survived in headline drawers or as part of artwork.)

For those of you too young to know what lead type is, here are some pictures of the kits and here is some background.

I have donated five sets of type to the DCAA that the folks there are auctioning off. All the proceeds will go to the Daily Cardinal through the DCAA for whatever the students there deem valuable and important. It could be a conference. It could be new equipment. It could be anything. The important thing is that they have a chance to get something or do something they otherwise might not have had.

The typesets are listed for auction here if you are interested in bidding or you know someone who is.

Please take a look if you are interested and able to bid or pass this info along to anyone you think might want to bid on them. Not only will these sets look great in any office or home, but the money does go to help the next generation of journalists who will keep us all informed.

 

Goodnight, Susie Brandscheid

Had it not been for Susie Brandscheid, I probably would have been a pretty decent reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.

That thought kept rolling around in my head when I found out she died Wednesday at the age of 70.

Susie was the assistant to the director for UW-Madison’s School of Journalism as well as the graduate student adviser there for decades before retiring a few years back. She also was the keeper of knowledge, the fixer of foul-ups and the soother of students’ battered souls during her decades of service in and around Vilas Hall. Faculty, staff and students sought her advice, her insight and her help each and every day.

She always had the answers we all needed and she seemed to be effortless in her ability to get them for us. It was like having a computer crammed with every conceivable solution to any potential problem mixed with a treasure trove of institutional knowledge.

And she was damned funny, to boot.

She had a special sense of humor that defies explanation. I would camp out in her office whenever possible and trade amusing anecdotes. She would tell me stories about her husband, Pete, a man I never met but whose Quixotic endeavors had me laughing until I cried some days. I would tell her about the weird police-beat stuff I had to cover for the State Journal and she’d turn those dark moments into even darker humor.

There was always something bitingly humorous when it came to Susie. I can still remember one “sympathy” card she had pinned to the cork board on the wall behind her desk. It was black with red lettering that read, “Sorry to hear you’ve been depressed…”

Taped to the inside of the card was a razor blade.

Of all the people who worked in School of Journalism during my six years there, she was the only one I invited to my wedding. She came and it turned out to be another funny story we shared.

About six months after the wedding, I get a call out of the blue from Susie.

“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry,” she said.

I had no idea what she was talking about. It turns out, she had spent the previous few months wondering why she never got a “thank you” card or a note or anything for the card and the check she gave us. I never expected a gift from her, as her showing up was more than enough for us. Also, we were moving, I was finishing my doctorate and we must have sent off a jillion cards, so it never really dawned on me that I hadn’t sent one to her.

A day or two before she called me, she went to put on the outfit she wore to the wedding and she realized she had stuck the card in her jacket pocket instead of dropping it on the gift table. She asked for our address so she could send it out in the next day’s mail.

We had a long laugh about that one.

Any time spent with Susie was like going to confession, visiting a psychiatrist and getting a mental reboot. She kept me sane. She kept me focused. She kept me happy.

She also kept me out of Baraboo.

I was in the first six weeks of my master’s program, and things were not going well. I was working multiple part-time jobs to keep my head above water financially. I was living in a one-room hovel on the end of Bassett Street that was essentially one giant building-code violation. A chunk of the ceiling fell into my bed during a rain storm one night, and the plumbing turned my water so brown that I begged for a Brita pitcher for Christmas.

I also didn’t understand any of my coursework. Each day, I entered a certain professor’s class, swearing up and down that I was going to comprehend him and his theories on the media. Each day, he lost me in the first three minutes and I spent the next hour or so doing the crossword in the student newspaper.

Out of frustration, I applied for a job at the Baraboo News Republic, a daily paper for the hometown of the Circus World Museum (among other things). The editors met with me on a Saturday and the offered me a full-time gig with benefits and a salary that would get me off the “Ramen and such diet.” All I had to do was drop this pointless degree and go to work.

That Monday, I went to tell Susie that I needed to drop my classes and see what I could do about getting some of my tuition money back. Instead, we started talking about why I was going to Baraboo and why I even got into the grad program in the first place.

“I did this so I could teach,” I told her in frustration. “I wanted to see what it would be like to run a classroom and I know I can’t do that without a master’s.”

She paused for a moment and then said, “What if I could give you your own 205 class to teach next semester? Would you stay with the program?”

J-205 was news writing and reporting class of about 15 students, taught in one of the school’s computer labs. Teaching gigs like that were impossibly difficult to get. They went to doctoral students for the most part. Even more, most TA jobs were essentially indentured servitude for professors who taught giant pit classes. A boatload of grading coupled with no actual teaching was basically the gig. Handing a J-205 class to a first-years master’s student wouldn’t just ruffle feathers; it would be like putting an ostrich in a blender.

“I would do anything for that kind of chance,” I told her. “Can you really do that?”

She told me she would make it happen somehow. I believed her. Later that day, I called Baraboo and turned down the job.

It is a rare moment when a person can say with absolute certainty that someone completely changed his or her life without even a hint of hyperbole. That’s what Susie did for me at that point.

Without her, I’m not a college instructor at the age of 22.

Without that experience, I don’t get the job at Mizzou or the doctorate the followed.

Without those two things, I don’t get a tenure-track job at Ball State and my first newsroom advising gig.

I sure as hell don’t end up a tenured professor, a textbook author or an award-winning anything.

Instead, I get to be the most popular cops reporter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

I have a really hard time trying to quantify how monumental Susie was in giving me the life I have today. I also can’t even begin to imagine how many thousands of other people have a “Susie saved my life” story just like that.

Maybe that’s the thing that made her so special: Even though I was one of 100 things she had to deal with on any given day, she had this knack of making me feel like I was the most important one. I never felt like a bother or that I was just filling time for her until something more important came along.

My life and where it went mattered to her. I hope she always knew how much her life mattered to me.

So, goodnight, Susie. The world is a lesser place without you.

But everything you gave us will continue to help us better it.

 

 

Four fact-checking tips inspired by the NYT’s four-error, 135-word correction on John McCain’s obituary

The most anxiety-provoking story I ever oversaw was an obituary. Louis Ingelhart was likely the most important person in the history of Ball State University’s journalism program. He arrived in Muncie in 1953 and essentially developed almost every meaningful program associated with journalism during his time there, including the creation of a journalism minor, major and the department. He served as the department’s first chairman and also oversaw the Ball State Daily News for a time.

Beyond that, he was a legend in press freedom. He won dozens of First Amendment awards and had awards named after him. He was elected to the state’s journalism hall of fame as well as the College Media Association hall of fame. His list of awards and accolades reads like the “to-do list” of a journalism titan.

It was the day before the spring semester was to start when I got a call from someone at the newsroom, telling me they heard Louie had taken ill. It was about 5 p.m. and we had a skeleton crew working at the paper that night, given the first issue back was usually sports recaps and a few fluffy features. By the time I got to the office, we had it confirmed that he died. It was 6 p.m. and we had six hours to rip up the paper and make an appropriate tribute to this man.

Signs were posted all over the newsroom reading “IN-GEL-HART” so that no one would misspell his name. We had students combing through various publications and images to make sure we knew exactly when he graduated from college or what his job in which city. We had designers scratching out various front pages and photography editors scanning in 50-year-old black and white images.

At one point, my editor said something to me about how we needed to not take this so seriously or something and I recalled a line that hockey coach Herb Brooks told his players after they won the Miracle on Ice game. His team was playing Finland for the gold medal after the Miracle and his team wasn’t as focused as he felt it should be. Rather than talk strategy, he simply said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it with you to your (expletive) grave.” That was exactly how I felt at that moment. Every name had to be right. Every fact had to be right. If we spelled something wrong in a headline it would be there forever. If there ever was a day to not screw something up, this was the day.

I thought about that today when I found a copy of the New York Times’ correction on John McCain’s obituary:

TimesCorrections

That’s one heck of a long correction for a publication with the journalistic chops of the New York Times. It’s also hard to fathom that the staff didn’t have time to get this thing out from the files and really polish it up. McCain had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2017, and it wasn’t looking good for months. With that, someone probably should have figured it would be a good idea to really start working on this obituary.

(Most people of any significant societal distinction have an obituary on file at the NYT. Each time the person does something else of interest, it gets added to that file so the obit is as up to date as possible. When the person dies, papers like the Times just have to weave in the date, cause of death and age before sending it out to the world.)

I can give the paper a pass (sort of) on the family issue. A guy who is 81, you tend not to think, “I wonder if his mom or dad is still alive.” Plus, when it comes to survivors, there is always a risk of leaving someone off, no matter how hard you try to avoid the problem.

However, the other errors all come from facts that are at least 20 years old and pretty simple to verify. That hurts.

Rather than beat up on the Times, though, the goal here is to help you see some things you can take with you from this debacle. Here are four hints to help you avoid screwing up in a situation like this:

 

Beware of “-est” statements: The statement about fire on the Forrestal being the “deadliest” incident, provides you with a good lesson about how absolutism can get you in trouble. Absolutes are always interesting and yet difficult to prove in many occasions. This is why Oddity is an interest element and why things that are the first, last or only of their kind matter to people.

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

 

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: When people write or edit, they often look at a statement and assume it to be true unless they can prove it false. If I told you that, “I have a 13-year-old daughter,” chances are, you’d think, “OK, that’s probably true.” However, if I told you, “I have a 101-year-old daughter,” you’re probably thinking, “There’s no way that’s true. I gotta check that out.”

The point is, we start from the assumption of “True unless provably false.” If you want to avoid mistakes when the chips are down, reverse that approach to your fact-checking behavior. Look at each element of a sentence and think, “That’s probably wrong. I need to check on it.” Examine each factual component of a story and think, “How could that totally screw me over by being wrong? I need to prove it’s right.”

I often espouse the Filak-ism that paranoia is my best friend, and that really applies here. Obviously, it would be great if you had time to look up every fact and check on every comma in every story this way, but you have to be practical in this. However, if it’s a “you’re going to take this to your (expletive) grave” -level assignment, the “wrong until proven right” approach works pretty well.

 

How you state something matters: The Jack Kemp error comes from someone not knowing the history of professional football in the United States. The AFL was an upstart league that formed in the 1960s and eventually merged with the NFL. Kemp was a quarterback for the Bills until the end of the 1969 season, the last season the two leagues remained separate under a merger agreement.

Had the obituary stated he played professionally for the Buffalo Bills, that would have worked. Had it said he was a professional football player, that would have been fine. However, weaving in that minor detail about the NFL created an error because of how it was stated.

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

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

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles.

The second statement has the same trappings of the Kemp situation when it comes to understanding the history of the game. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls, with six victories. However the NFL was around long before the Super Bowl and titles go back to the 1920s. Thus the team with the most NFL championships is the Green Bay Packers, who won 13 league titles.

A similar thing happened in terms of phrasing during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 20 others before killing themselves. At the time, some reporters called it the “deadliest attack” at a school in U.S. history in some cases, which was inaccurate. It was the deadliest school shooting at that point, but the deadliest attack was an incident in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927. A man there blew up a school, killing 44 people and injuring 58 others. Thus, “shooting” and “attack” were not interchangeable.

 

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

Thanks, Terri.

Editor’s Note: I came back a day earlier than expected because this was important to say. I’ll be back Monday with regular news, journalism, media and other odd posts for the official start of the semester.

If you’re like me, when you spend three years of your life on a project, you tend to get a bit territorial, anxious and borderline psychotic when the ground shifts under your feet.

The “Dynamics of Media Writing” book was just heading to press when I got an email from Matt Byrnie, the guy who convinced me to write this thing. He had been promoted and he would no longer be riding over the top of my book. My new contact, who was on vacation at that time, would be a woman named Terri Accomazzo, who was coming over from another division in SAGE to take Matt’s place.

This seems like a little thing, if you don’t know publishing and if you haven’t had the publishing experiences I had up to that point. SAGE had been the fourth publishing house I had worked with (five or six, if you want to count the merry-go-round approach Focal got through mergers and acquisitions). In the previous two, the editor at the company who signed me to a contract had moved or quit the company during my writing process, leaving my books as “orphans” in the system.

When your book becomes an “orphan,” it usually spells disaster. In one case, I had to wait 11 years to do a second edition of a book because nobody had an interest in working with me at that publisher. (Oddly enough, I finally found someone who had faith in me, pushed for the book, got it set up for a second edition and got it published. She resigned shortly after that and I’ve never heard from those folks again.) In another case, the approach and the content of the book kept shifting, as each new person at the publishing house had a “great new idea” on what we could do. The book essentially died on the vine.

When Matt told me on Aug. 24, 2015 that I was getting this new contact, I thought, “Dammit. Here we go again…” I was going to end up on the street corner selling bags of oranges with a free copy of “Dynamics of Media Writing” inside, I figured, thanks to this Terri person.

Three years, five books and one blog later, I’m sad to say that “this Terri person” is completing her last day at SAGE today. In even writing that sentence, I have a wave of oddly contradictory emotions: sad that she’s leaving, happy that she found her dream job, worried about what happens next and amazed at how much we managed to do together in such a short period of time.

Over those three years, there was never a time where I didn’t have a giant Post-It Note full of book deadlines on my wall. I owed a chapter, an edit, an email, a proof copy or something else to Terri every day of my life over that span of time. With the final copy edit of the “Dynamics of Media Editing” book this week, that last note comes down as she hangs up her spurs at SAGE. It’s an odd confluence of timing that is both fitting and amazing.

Over those three years, Terri also had to put up with a lot from me as we learned to trust each other and find common ground. Our first big discussion was about a book cover. It began when I said the original set of cover proofs for the media writing book looked like “a muppet’s ransom note.” OK, a bit harsh, but tell me I’m wrong:

Filak_DynamicsMediaWriting_comps1-2_Page_2

After that, we worked together on every cover to make sure it was something we both could proudly hand out to people and say, “This book is great from cover to cover.” Her willingness to collaborate was different from my previous experiences in publishing. (In one case at another publishing house, the cover suggestions sucked so badly, I ended up hiring a designer on my own dime to help develop the cover. When the publisher balked at using the cover design she had created, I threatened to stop working on it until I got the cover. Childish? Maybe. Stupid? Not a chance, as what they had couldn’t have been more generic if they just put out a white cover with the word “BOOK” on it in black Comic Sans.)

Terri also had to put up with what I called my “needy girlfriend” emails over the years. “What did the publications committee say about the book?” “What did the reviewers say about the chapters?” “Why are the reviewers so meeeeeeen?????” “Are you going to be at XYZ conference?” “Are you mad at me?” Somehow, even though she had a squillion other authors to deal with, she managed to email me back each time to tell me, “They don’t just like you. They “like you” like you!” or whatever you tell angst-riddled authors to get them to stop listening to The Cure and acting like Tickle Me Emo.

Terri was also willing to push the envelope to see what we were capable of. When the media writing book did better than expected, she pushed for a revision that added more content and improved the product. When I was looking for a home for an editing book that had some baggage with it, she signed me to a contract and put me in contact with some smart people to get it into shape. When someone mentioned an idea that would succeed only if the author REALLY bought into it, she pitched it to me as a “I know you can do this” concept.

I could always tell when she had more work for me, as her tone of voice was like that of my mother when she called me to get some help with her computer. I was fine with whatever she wanted and I always worked harder for Terri, because I knew she was working even harder for me. That’s why I ended up working on three books at once. It’s why I tried to beat her deadlines by weeks or months. It’s why I added chapters or workbooks or whatever. We were a team, and I know I’m going to really miss that. Even though I know SAGE has my back and that the company will get someone great to take her place, I am going to miss Terri and her enthusiasm for my work.

Perhaps my favorite Terri moment came right when she got the green light to sign me up to do the editing book. She called me to tell me the good news and I filled her in on a couple other things. She discussed how the publication cycles would work and what she would need from me and when.

Then she stopped and laughed.

“If all of these projects are as successful as I know they’re going to be,” she said, “you’re going to end up doing one book per year for me for the rest of your life.”

I might end up writing a book a year for life, but I won’t be doing it for Terri now. Still, I have no doubt I never would be where I am today with any of these books if it weren’t for her.

So, thanks, Terri. For everything.

 

 

Gone Fishin’: Taking in a final breath of summer

I’m sure most folks are done with their summer courses at this point and the fall hasn’t started for a good many of you yet. (We start after Labor Day. I know some folks start in a week or so.)

With that in mind, I’m going to take a week off and enjoy the last bit of summer we have. I’m probably going to refinish some furniture and work on the Mustang. I hope you find a way to have as much fun with your time as I’m going to have with mine.

See you back Aug. 20!

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

Three myths students believe about their professors that hurt the students’ educational journey

Myth 1: “I’m bothering the professor if I ask for help.”

A derivation of this myth is “Professors are too busy to help me.” Yes, we are busy people and, contrary to popular opinion, we do stuff outside the classroom, like research, meetings, service, meetings, advising, meetings and other meetings about meetings, we are never “bothered” by a real request for help.

The truth is, we see it as an investment for a couple reasons. First, we help you improve the specific assignment that troubles you. That makes life easier on us when we have to grade the assignment and we get to read a quality piece. Professors can fly through quality work, quickly sing your praise and then move on to the next thing, which is probably a meeting. Work that is lousy takes forever and a day to get through, as we correct every glitch along the way and ponder if we should chuck it all and become a long-haul truck driver.

Second, it’s an investment in future assignments. If we help you fix the mistakes now, chances are, you’ll avoid making those mistakes in the future. That means we won’t have to muddle through the grading process each time we read your work. It’s that “Teach a man to fish” approach to giving you an education.

Finally, it gives us a chance to make adjustments for the class. If you’re having a problem, you probably aren’t the only one having it. Thus, if you bring it to our attention, we’ll probably find a way to help you fix the problem and then share what we figured out together with the rest of the class. That improves everyone’s experience and makes life easier on us when we have to grade your papers as well.

In short, you’re not a bother if you have a real concern, so bring it to us and we’ll help you get through it.

 

Myth 2: “Professors like failing students.”

Versions of this include “This guy/gal gets off on being a harsh grader” or “Nobody gets an A in Professor Smith’s class.”

We don’t like failing students and we probably aren’t that thrilled when we have to give out even worse grades like a “D+.” (Why do we have a D+ as a grade option? Who thought it was a great idea to dress up a D? I can’t imagine going home with one of these to have my old man yell, “You got a D?!?!?” and having me respond, “No, Dad, it’s a D PLUS!”)

Contrary to popular opinion, professors don’t get cash bonuses or a set of steak knives if we meet some quota for failing students. In fact, it takes far more work to fail a student than it does to pass one. Think about that the next time you bomb out of a class.

Professors typically have two main gripes about student and grades:

  1. Some students just want the A or the B or whatever but don’t care about the knowledge, information or learning to go along with it.
  2. Some students figure A’s are like Halloween candy: As long as they show up and go through the motions, they should get it.

If you approach the professor for help by saying, “I need to get an A (or  a B or a C or whatever), so how can I do that?” what the professor hears is, “Look, I really don’t care about anything going on in this class other than what I need to get out of it grade-wise so that I can move on to something much more important than you and whatever crap is happening in your class.” However, if you ask for help with the idea of better understanding the material so that you avoid failure or a grade too low to keep your scholarship or whatever, we’re totally in your corner.

I believe that, for the most part, grades will result from the effort the students put in, so failure takes an awful lot in my class. In other courses, I’m sure the failure rate is higher because the stakes are higher. My wife, Amy, has taken nursing courses where people get smoked every semester with F after F after F, which always seems to me to be Draconian. That said, the stakes are much higher if you have a nurse who doesn’t know the material perfectly. The last thing I want to hear before being sedated in advance of a surgery is a nurse saying, “I think I gave him the right dosage, but I had a real easy grader in Med-Surgery…”

 

Myth 3: “Professors don’t care.”

This drives us nuts because so many of us do care. It also smacks of that whiny, self-indulgent, woe-is-me crap that everyone has said at a bar, three drinks after getting the break up call from our significant other. (Versions of that include, “Women are evil, man…” and “Men totally suck…”) Sweeping generalities mean to camouflage personal shortcomings don’t get the job done, and professors know that. We STILL say this stuff in other aspects of our lives. (“The reviewers who rejected my article don’t know squat about this field!” or “The sabbatical committee is playing favorites!” or “Chancellors are evil, man…”)

We all have our own version of this myth and it distracts us all from the ability to get stuff done. Early in my career, whenever I would get a rejection from a journal, I’d crumple up the letter up, throw it in a corner of my office, dump a bunch of stuff on top of it, curse and then start looking for jobs in the automotive mechanic sector. A day later, I’d pick it out of the stuff, look at it, crumple it back up and throw it in a different corner. By Day Four, I’d read through the comments, figure out which ones were legit, which ones were crap and get cracking on a revision. Eventually, I learned to trim that grieving process substantially…

There are always people who are a-holes for no good reason, who like pulling the wings off of flies and who just don’t care about you. In professor-speak, we call them “Reviewer 2.” However, the majority of your professors want you to be successful if for no other reason than they get to brag about you when you do well. (I’m still yakking about students who are at “major media outlets” that I taught introductory writing to, as if my “noun-verb” lesson was the only thing that helped them succeed in life.) They also want to see you have that moment where the light goes on for you and you “get it.”

That’s the ultimate payoff for most of us.

Following up on the Times Argus’ coverage of its coverage of the murder-suicide: 3 learning moments for all media students

EDITOR’S NOTE: The piece I ran Monday regarding the murder-suicide in Vermont was less about the people involved and more about lessons to learn from the situation. The subsequent discussions that followed seemed to shift that focus, so I thought it was important to update and revisit the issue. In doing so, I wanted to make it clear that I know Adam Silverman well. I’ve known him for almost half my life as a student, a colleague and a friend. He contributed to my books and he stood up for my wedding.

I didn’t really think this disclosure was necessary before, as the post was more about the issue than it was about him. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve known Chris Evans, who is quoted in the VTDigger piece, for many years as a student media adviser and friend. Chris, however, did not stand up for my wedding. I’m sure he would have if I asked. Now, on with the post…

The apology the Times Argus issued Monday in the wake of its coverage of a murder-suicide in Vermont should have capped the issue entirely. Unfortunately, the leaders of the paper apparently never heard of Filak’s First Rule of Holes: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

In a brief recap, the paper published an article on Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, a young couple who died in a murder-suicide when LaCroix shot Gaboriault and then himself in her apartment last week. The follow-up story included many details on LaCroix, including his status as “a popular lacrosse coach” at an area high school and how he was “well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area.”

The details on Gaboriault were limited and thus some folks felt the story leaned toward favoring LaCroix. I referred to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, where everyone always praises someone who died in a horrible way, never seeing anything bad the person did or at least not expressing it.

Gaboriault worked for the Department of Public Safety, as does Adam Silverman, who took to Twitter to deconstruct the story and to demand some sort of remedy from the paper. Rob Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of the paper, issued an ombudsman’s column on this issue Sunday, explaining the rationale behind what the paper published and offering an apology to people who took umbrage with the story.

It felt like the story arc was over until two things happened:

  1. Silverman took to Twitter to deconstruct and respond to the apology.
  2. The Vermont Digger, a statewide news organization, published a piece on the situation and the editors of the Times Argus spoke.

In both cases, it was like two people wanted to have “the last word” in an argument, so rather than let sleeping dogs lie, both sides picked at the tenuously healing wound.

Silverman’s Twitter feed on this did acknowledge the apology, although it also continued to note the paper’s need to do better. Yes, but it’s hard to “do better” 12 seconds after screwing up and apologizing for it. It’s also pokes at the assertion that the story was a mess but the writer and editor were not to blame for this, which he calls “a paradox.” I can’t make a call on this one either way, but I don’t know a lot of EICs who would dump a reporter or editor under the bus in a public column unless egregious fact errors emerged.

The Digger’s piece did the “media looks at media” approach, which makes sense, in that this is a public spat between a public information officer and a media outlet, who will likely need symbiosis at some point in life. The reporter gave Mitchell a chance to “fire back” (a term journalists have somehow taken to using for no good reason) at Silverman and Mitchell took it:

However, Mitchell said in an interview Monday that he does not believe criticizing newspapers is the public information officer’s role.

“It puts him and the state police in the position of becoming ombudsman of every article about crime,” Mitchell said. “That’s not to say we can’t learn something from his criticism. But there’s a line there that he needs to be careful about. There are many victims of crime in this state. It can’t just be about one or another.”

And so did editor Steve Pappas:

Times-Argus Editor Steve Pappas said Monday that the newspaper received no warning that the Department of Public Safety planned to publicly lambaste the paper.

“Bottom line is, I felt like it was a cheap shot,” Pappas said about Silverman’s social media posts.

This has led to additional Twitter outrage, arguments and other such kerfuffles, thus shifting the focus away from the dead people and the initial problem with the reporting.

So why talk about it here? Because there are a couple things you all can learn, regardless of which area of media you plan to enter:

  • Don’t take the bait: If you go into public relations, you will have plenty of chances to either stoke a story or let it die. When you already find yourself in an awkward position, the last thing you want is for that story to continue. Thus, when the reporter for the Vermont Digger asked Pappas and Mitchell for comments on this, the smart move would have been to say something like, “We always appreciate feedback from all of our readers with the hope of constantly improving our service to the greater Barre area.” It’s simple, true and it gets you off the dime on this. Statements like “There’s a line he needs to be careful about” are going to keep the story rolling the same way that “Yeah? So’s your mother!” will keep a schoolyard fight at DEFCON 1.

 

  • Consider the platform: I often espouse the Filak-ism of “A hammer is a great tool but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb,” and that applies nicely here when it comes to Twitter. I agreed with a number of the statements Silverman made on the initial coverage and I disagreed with some of the other ones both there and in the follow up he did. However, I didn’t like the use of Twitter here because the platform seemed wrong.
    If you have to use a dozen or more 280-character bursts to make a point, it can feel like a deluge of information pouring out into the public. Several folks in the Digger story seemed to reflect that issue, including Chris Evans and Pappas. I’m not sure a press release would have been the way to go here, as it wouldn’t get as much public play, but considering other platform options might have been a good idea. Twitter is more like a lead and/or a headline. If you start lapsing into soliloquies, Twitter isn’t the right platform.

 

  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?: I always ask this whenever dealing with a tough decision, in that I want to figure out if what I’m about to do is worth whatever I’m going to get out of it. It’s akin to the “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” question my friend Allison and I used to ask of ourselves when doing something that had heavy good and bad potential. Both sides really needed to look at this here:
    Silverman made his points and got out there on the issue, garnering an apology and a sense that the newspaper understood enough of what upset people to make the staff rethink its processes. Was it worth it to go back and re-litigate the issue in digging through the ombudsman column and thus pushing harder on it?
    The paper has to work with the state police and to at least some extent, I would guess, Silverman throughout his tenure as the PIO. Was it really worth it grousing to another media outlet about this, ticking him off again and extending the shelf life of the story? I know him well enough to know he’s not going to spite the paper, but the paper did make stuff awkward for the reporters who have to call Silverman for stories in the future. Was it worth it?
    I have my own theory on both of those, but what really matters is to what extent both parties considered these issues and then made their choices. You should also have a similar mental conversation before you make any moves as a media professional.

 

In the wake of the Capital Gazette shooting, I worry about “my kids.”

I have told anyone who will listen to me over the years that I only have one child, a daughter I love more than anything in the world. But, I have hundreds and maybe even thousands of “kids” I have taught and advised that I love and care about as if they were my own children.

Someone once chastised me for using that term, as they felt it demeaned students or treated them as less than. For me, I couldn’t imagine a more honest and heartfelt way to explain to these students what they mean to me.

They come to the classroom on unsteady journalistic legs and with fuzzy concepts about who they want to be. They arrive at the doorway of the student newsroom with the trepidation of a shy first-grader entering a new school where everyone else seems to know everyone else. They knock tentatively on my door, asking if I’m “Dr…. Filak?”

Years later, they graduate with a stronger sense of who they are and what they can be. They depart a newsroom where they are now “the big kids” who welcome the newbies with a confident handshake or a self-deprecating joke. They enter my office like Norm entered “Cheers,” flopping down in a chair and saying, “Hey man… what’s up?”

What they don’t understand is that I, like so many of us in this field of education, never stop thinking about them or worrying about them. We cheer for their professional successes and mourn their painful losses. We take pride in their work, whether it’s at the nation’s leading media outlets or in fields far from where they thought journalism would take them.

Once our lives intertwine over discussions of “noun-verb-object,” or why it is the Indians can’t seem to win a World Series, we never really part, regardless of the physical space between us or the amount of time between contacts.

I thought about this all last night as the coverage of the Capital Gazette shooting poured into my news feeds. Five people killed, two others seriously wounded at the hands of a disgruntled and imbalanced man. I knew none of these people personally, as was the case for most of the people I know. However, the overwhelming number of posts, tweets and stories journalists and journalism educators shared told me I wasn’t alone in my sorrow over this.

A friend who advises a student media outlet out west posted that one of her “kids,” who graduated in 2011, worked at the paper but was safe. Others on our adviser listserv shared a supportive sigh of relief for her, even as we knew five families lost a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife or more.

And somewhere, some journalism educator or adviser lost a “kid.”

Reminders of “my kids” are everywhere around me. A wedding invitation is posted on our refrigerator. A fundraising T-shirt for a woman recovering from breast cancer sits in my dresser. A printer’s plate of our “We Need the A-T” page rests against a wall in my basement. Two paintings hang on the walls of my “man cave.” A resume from a mid-career professional sits in my in box with a “could you please see if this is OK” email accompanying it.

In my office, post cards, thank you notes and personal letters jut out at all angles from an overflowing cork board. Pictures of former staffs cover wall surfaces, next to the framed receipt that commemorates the time I tried to get the university to pay for some porn film an editor bought. (Long story…) Facebook updates tell me about their new jobs, new careers, new spouses, new children and new lives. Even as they reach their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, they remain to me one of “my kids,” mentally trapped in my head as the 21-year-old who showed up hung over out of his/her mind for my 8 a.m.

A few years back, two broadcast journalists were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague as they filmed a morning-show puff piece on the chamber of commerce. A local news crew interviewed me to do a localization on safety issues that should be addressed for journalists after this shooting.

Most of what I had to say didn’t make the final cut, mainly because I was arguing against the station’s premise that journalists needed to find ways to be careful these days. How? What could I possibly say that would have kept Vester Lee Flanagan from shooting two people in broad daylight? What lesson would have kept the Capital Gazette safe from Jarrod Ramos and his violent rampage?

And that’s what really kept me up last night. That’s what really bothered me.

I can teach them almost everything, but I can’t teach them this.

So, I do the best I can with what I have. I dance at their weddings and I mourn with them at funerals. I light holy candles in my hometown church, hoping it helps as they face “the Big C.” I edit resumes and I answer emails with supportive messages. I try to help them in any way I can.

 

Just before I headed to bed last night, a message popped up on my screen from one of my more recent graduates. He left journalism and now writes scripts for a telemarketing company. He’s content and yet restless, finding his way in this whole “adulting” thing everyone else seems to have under control.

He had a link to the quote from a staffer at the Capital Gazette who declared for all the world that not even something as abhorrent as what had just occurred would stop the presses that day:

“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

He then wrote: “I read that quote in your voice by habit.”

Thanks, kid. That means more to me than you know.

 

“Definitely Doable:” Either hire or fire a pervert and other headline advice for the rest of us.

Whenever someone screws up a headline in the worst of all ways, it doesn’t take long before people I know are shining the Bat Signal in my direction:

Shecky

The headline in question is a little easier to see here:

Doable

The story about a young woman winning the Miss Kansas Outstanding Teen carried the double entendre headline “Definitely Doable,” which includes a term that is that at the heart of this classic SNL skit. When I initially saw the headline, I told the person who asked me about it that this was likely a case of one of two things:

  1. The phrase was in the story somewhere and it made sense there, but out of context, it’s truly horrifying.
  2. Someone in the newsroom did the “I’d do her” joke, wrote the headline as a spoof and said, “We’ll change that before it presses” and never did.

Turns out, it was the first issue, as the story (which has a more appropriate headline on its web version) included this quote:

“It was really hard for me to be away from my family for a week because we are have always been so close, but it was good for me coming here,” she said. “This week taught me that this is definitely doable.“

There are about 93 problems with all this, including that this young woman will be the “definitely doable girl” for a long time, but here’s the worst one: This isn’t the first time the Pratt Tribune has landed in the headlines for a headline. This classic was the Tribune’s as well:

Handjob

We talked about this when it happened, along with a series of other headlines that went awry, and provided some advice to the Trib and other folks who want to avoid these problems. The best advice I can give them after this screw up is to find out what went wrong and do one of two things:

  1. If the same person keeps writing these headlines, fire the pervert before he or she (OK, if I had to put money on it, it’s a he) gets you into even bigger trouble.
  2. If it truly is a situation where nobody really saw either of these headlines as being potentially sexual, hire a pervert to read everything you write and have him or her (probably a him) try to turn anything you type into something dirty.

For the rest of us, here are a couple other headline helpers beyond what we covered last time:

  • Create better headline specs: One of the reasons I’m sure “Definitely Doable” ended up in the paper was because the space left for the headline didn’t give the writer a lot of options. One basic rule we used to have at a paper I worked on was, “If you cut the hole, you need to know how to fill it.” In other words, you can’t give someone a one-column head space for a story about California kindergarten rules under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, unless you can suggest a decent headline for that space.
  • Do a headline throw-down: When you get into a jam with a headline, get away from the computer and do a throw-down session that will give you a fighting chance of coming up with something decent. Create a list of potential nouns, verbs and objects that could tell the story, based on what you read. List everything you can think about and empty your head. If you have some colleagues around, get those folks involved as well. This will provide you with a potential word bank for the headline and a chance to see how certain words might fit that space. If you find a pairing or an NVO structure you like, see if it fits. If it doesn’t, try swapping longer words for shorter ones on your list. Get close and see if some minor tracking or a small reduction in point size would help.
  • Consider a deck: This headline probably wouldn’t have been helped by a deck but other versions might have. If you don’t have the width for a good noun-verb-object headline, see if you have a punchy word or phrase that could be explained well with a deck head, conversation deck, c-deck or whatever else people are calling that secondary headline these days. If you don’t have to win the day with a single headline, you can make the deck head carry the load for you.

And, it goes without saying, think like a 12-year-old boy before you publish something. If that kid can turn your head into a “head” joke, get rid of it. You could always ask for different headline space or simply ask someone else to give it a try. When all is said and done, that headline should be “definitely doable.”

 

 

The “Do We Need J-Schools?” Debate, Part II: Solutions based on the World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge and 1970s self-esteem commercials

In the last post, where I dug into the special report from Columbia Journalism Review on if we need J-schools, I promised that all was not lost if you chose this path in life. I doubt you all have waited with bated breath for the answer, but I hope this post will give you a sense that having two dudes with a myopic view of journalism education that starts and stops on the corner of 116th and Broadway argue about your future shouldn’t scare you.

Consider these points when you look at what you’re getting out of your J-school experience and see if this helps you feel a bit better:

What do you want to get out of this? Let’s call this “The World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge” argument.

At one point, I owned a really nice mini-fridge to keep soda and beer cold in my basement. It was clean, new-looking and jet black and I really liked it. However, when my mother-in-law was put into assisted living, she needed one of these things and she didn’t have a lot of money, so I gave it to her. I then needed to replace it, as there’s no way I’m running up and down a flight of stairs every time I need a Diet Coke. If I did, I’d have thighs like Eric Heiden…

In any case, I ran into a lady at a rummage sale who told me she had one for $10. “It’s not that pretty, but it keeps stuff cold,” she told me. I bought it on the spot, even though the “it’s not that pretty” part was a drastic understatement:

Fridge.jpg

Here’s the point: All I wanted out of this thing was to keep soda (and beer) cold. It did that. I could care less what it looked like. So why didn’t I just give my mother-in-law this one and keep the nice one? Because she has OCD (really) and she would rather die than have this Rorschach Test of an appliance within 20 feet of her. I got what I wanted (cold beverages) and she got what she wanted (a nice appliance that didn’t embarrass her) so it all worked out.

The point is, you have to start with an understanding of what you want out of your journalism educational experience because this makes the difference in terms of which side of this argument you want to be on:

The assumption both authors in the “Do We Need J-Schools?” debate make is equating journalism school to Columbia’s God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. As we talked about last time, there are a ton of other journalism schools out there that will provide you with opportunities to get a great education, good opportunities and a fine life without having to hock a kidney at your local pawn shop. You will also have the opportunity to gain a strong sense of media literacy, something a colleague told me I shouldn’t forget when talking about J-school. (She was totally right. You get to be wicked smart on how media works in this world and why it matters if you go to J-school.)

What you want out of the experience is really where the rubber meets the road in this discussion. As I mentioned earlier, I had students who wanted to go home and run a local newspaper, so coming to us at UWO, getting a good degree they could afford and going home worked for them. I always push students to be as good as they can be, but I would never slight a student whose goal wasn’t to be the next Jake Tapper or Bob Woodward. Even more, I have had plenty of good students who came through this program and landed jobs at Facebook, ESPN and more. They set some goals, met some good instructors and got what they wanted.

If you feel that having the ability to say you went to Columbia or Northwestern or any other “name” school is the end-all and be-all, then by all means, go that route. The degree and its cache matter if they matter to you. I equate it to the guy next door to me at work who loves designer clothing. If I ever say, “Hey, nice shirt,” he’ll tell me, “Yeah, it’s a Ralph Lauren…” or whatever. (Every piece of clothing he owns has a name to it.) The niceness and the label matters to him. If you say to me, “Hey, nice shirt,” I’m more likely to say, “Thanks. I think Amy bought it for me for Christmas about five years ago…” For him, it’s the label. For me, it’s about not spending $200 on a piece of clothing I’m going to ruin by dropping my lunch on it.

If where you are is getting the job done in the way you want, J-school is worth it.

Weigh cost versus value: This goes along with the first point, namely that you’re trying to figure out what you’re getting and what you’re giving in this kind of relationship with your school. There is no doubt that student loan debt is scary, so treat it like the food trade off in “The Hunger Games” where you got extra eats if you put your name in the reaping more often: Keep this approach to a minimum as best you can and avoid it whenever you can.

With that in mind, and acknowledging that student loans are as much a part of life now as professors who think they’re funny and assignments you blow off until the last second, the best way to keep the loans low is to go places where you pay less and get more. I’m sure Columbia University is a fine institution, but that nearly $216,000 price tag seems to have the cost/value balance way out of whack. That costs more than TWICE what I paid for a really nice four-bedroom, two-bath house in Muncie, Indiana about 15 years ago. And this leads to the point: I’d rather have two of those houses in my really nice neighborhood back there than two years in Columbia, preparing me for a job where I’m making about $32,000 a year.

Journalism has a strong element of meritocracy to it. The people who hire you care what you can do for them, not where you went to school or what your GPA was in college. I have had more “C” students get great jobs because they got published, took good internships and showed skills than “A” students who could recite the meaning behind Times v. Sullivan. Are you getting good value for what you are spending? If so, you need the school and the school needs you. There is balance in the force.

All of which leads to the next point…

The “Mizzou Brain” discussion: I spent five years at the University of Missouri working on the Columbia Missourian and finishing my Ph.D., so I spent a lot of time at a place that calls itself “The World’s Journalism School.” My first job after that was at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where the kids there were mostly state students who had a strong interest in journalism. One of the big questions they had for me was, “Are we as good as the Mizzou students you taught?” The assumption there was what I call the “Mizzou Brain Theory.”

The Muncie students seemed to think that going to Mizzou was like opening the Wonka Bar with the Golden Ticket inside: You get lucky enough to go there and you get this magical experience that transforms you. I had to explain that the kids at Mizzou start off at the same point they all do (as in they can’t find a decent lead with two hands and a flashlight), but they get better through taking advantage of the experiences they have over the years (and there are many unique ones) that make them who they become.

Yes, the degree is a little shinier and the experiences are a bit broader and more available, but the students there don’t show up, hang out for four years and get a “Mizzou Brain” at graduation that has all the answers. In other words, the smartest kid I ever would get at Ball State wasn’t going to be dumber than the dumbest kid I ever got at Mizzou, simply as a result of their presence at that institution of higher learning.

And I was right about that: Many of the students I had back at Ball State went on to incredible careers as head editors of major news outlets, reporters for big city newspapers, graphics experts for international TV outlets like CNN and marketing professionals from everything from casinos to the UFC. They got a ton of experience at student media outlets, parlayed that into great internships and then leveraged that into great jobs. All for quite a bit less than what Columbia University charges.

In short, it’s not where you go, but rather what you do when you get there. Finally…

It’s all about you: I spent the last three-to-five books telling readers that they need to write for an audience, not for themselves. In short, “It’s not about you” should have been translated into Latin and emblazoned on my family crest. However, this is a case where it is ENTIRELY all about you.

With that in mind, look at the following things when you consider where you are and what you’re getting:

  • Professors:Are these people truly invested in you or not? This doesn’t mean you should approach this like you’re a customer at a restaurant and you expect the professor to be the waitstaff. I mean it more in terms of where the professors priorities sit. A lot of the “name” programs reside at what are known as “R-1” institutions, where professors are judged heavily on how much research they do and how many journal articles they publish. This “publish or perish” approach means less time spent helping you and more time figuring out the difference in uses and gratifications for media use by left-handed guys named Ted. A lot of institutions like this will have instruction completed by teaching assistants and graduate assistants. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, as two of my best teachers in college were TAs. Are you getting meaningful connections with quality educators who can help you reach your goals, whatever they are? If so, you’re fine. If not, see if that can change. If it can’t, look elsewhere.
  • Learning type:You know how well you learn, even if you can’t explain it to anyone else. For some people, it’s the small lab setting or bust. For others, they can learn in 900-person lecture halls just fine. Some folks need a lot of one-on-one time while others are completely fine being left alone. This goes back to the first point in this list, which is that if you feel you need to spend a lot of time with an active and engaged professor to succeed, you want to make sure those people exist where you are. If you go to a smaller school with classes that meet your needs, you’re fine. Don’t worry so much about how everyone else does things or how the God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification does things. Worry about how YOU need to get stuff done to be the best you can be. Take inspiration from the Jamaican Bobsled Team on this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=askJo-rtUFE

  • Experiences:You get a job in this field based on the number of opportunities you have to improve your craft and publicly showcase your wares. In other words, you will live your own version of “publish or perish,” so you need to know if you can publish so you don’t perish. Does the institution have student media outlets where you can get cracking on building a skill set? How hard is it to get involved? What forms of student media are there? Newspaper? TV? Radio? Magazine? More?
    Also, does the place have an internship coordinator for journalism students, a strong alumni network of people who want to hire you and other ways to get you into the field? If you want to know the real “wizard behind the curtain” thing that makes Mizzou amazing, it’s all of this. The place owns the city a.m. daily newspaper, an NBC affiliate and a magazine. And that’s just the start. Add in the national and international program options for journalism students and massive network of “Mizzou Mafia,” you now know why it is that place pumps out J-grads like Alabama produced first-round NFL draft picks. Some places with a killer rep don’t have this while other places you wouldn’t think twice about have quietly built an amazing network of these opportunities.

I don’t know if this makes you feel better or worse about your journalism school choices, but I hope it helps somewhat. Either way, you’re always welcome to swing by and have a cold beverage of your choice here in Omro, courtesy of the ugliest mini-fridge ever.