Dear Journalism Students, You Are NOT The Enemy

Dear Journalism Students,

You are not the enemy.

Not of your school’s student government.

Not of the college administration.

And certainly not of the American people.

I felt the need to tell you this after yet another very public incident in which a politician castigated a member of the press corps and then eliminated his access to his beat. His crime? Having the temerity to ask questions that many people in his audience have, but that a powerful individual did not want to answer.

Jim Acosta is not a perfect human being or a perfect journalist. He’s not Joan of Arc and he’s not Bob Woodward. However, he’s also not a “rude, terrible person,” nor was he out of bounds in his desire to press the most powerful man in the world on issues that matter to his viewers. I say that without a politically motivated bone in my body. Had it been a Democrat, a Tea Party member, a Dixie-crat, a Whig or a Know-Nothing party member, I would feel exactly the same.

And so should you.

You are not vultures. You are not scumbags. You are certainly not “fake news.” You are not any of the other things I and others have been called simply because we had to tell stories people didn’t like.

You have chosen a profession that gives you an insight into the world that few get and even fewer fully appreciate.

You will be there to create the rough draft of history. You will write stories and take photos that capture slivers of time. You will help people celebrate the greatest events of their lives. You will showcase people in some of their darkest moments as well.

You will produce content that draws anger and rebuke from people who don’t like the fact they got caught doing something stupid. You will also produce content that grandmothers pin to the front door of their refrigerator. You will show up every day and start from zero and when you go home, you will have built another full accounting of the day’s most important events.

You are Sisyphus with a press pass.

You are part of a family now, one that stands with you when times are tough. A family that when it doesn’t know what else to do to help you, will send you pizza from all over the country.  A family that feels the pain of what you go through and will tell you, “I’ve been down here before. I know the way out.”

You will take your share of beatings. You will screw up and people will be so happy to jump on those rare errors and use them to discount and dismiss everything you have ever done. You will question yourself for days, weeks, months after those mistakes. You will wonder if what you’re doing matters.

And then, you will get back up. You will persist. Because that’s what we have trained you to do.

I can’t speak for all of your professors, student media advisers or journalistic peers, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say, hang in there. You picked the right job and people out there need you. It feels tough when news organizations are “shedding” jobs to help increase hedge-fund profitability. It’s hard to go home and explain to your parents why you would ever want to do this. It’s not easy to bite your tongue at Thanksgiving Dinner when your Uncle Earl, who raises pugs for profit, starts talking about “the fucking media” and how you and your ilk are responsible for everything from higher parking rates to the Hindenburg disaster.

Hang in there. It will get better. It will get worse. Then, it will get better again. It is what it is.

You will grow. You will improve. You will write, report, photograph, draw, design and build amazing things. You will feel a sense of pride that you made a difference, no matter what the cost. You will develop resiliency and strength.

You can do all this, even though for some of you writing a lead right now feels like trying to throw a strawberry through a brick wall. You will feel this, even as everyone from your roommate to the president of the United States feels compelled to beat the crap out of you. You will matter in the long reach of history, whether it’s on a campus, local, state, national or international level.

You will be many great and mighty things.

But you are not now, nor have you ever been, the enemy of the American people.

Sincerely,

The Doctor of Paper

Throwback Thursday: 4 Self-Serving Reasons Not To Cheat in A Journalism Course

I’m working through a series of longer posts for next week, but this popped up in my “memories” feed and it remains a valuable and valid bit of advice, so I thought I’d share it again here. If you want the link to the original for some reason, here you go.

See you all Monday with some more new content

– Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right. And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester.

It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.It’s also the same when the students are confronted.

They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. (Or, in at least one case, a note from a parent that told me “The family lawyer will be in touch.) It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)

Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course

  1. You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
    Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
    Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
    The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
    We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
  2. You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
    We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
    The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job?
    Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.”
  3. Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
    I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees.

    Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper.

    I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back:

    Vince, Small world!We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.Hope you are doing well.

    I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that.

    This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.

  4. You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.

    Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.

    The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.

    Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.

    I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.

Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.

Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.

 

NYT TV critic James Poniewozik bashes Axios CEO Jim VandeHei for his view on social media usage (and four things that explain why that’s beside the point.)

Jim VandeHei came to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, this weekend to help celebrate the department of journalism’s 50th anniversary. A co-founder of Axios and Politico, VandeHei could easily make the cut as one of the department’s most famous graduates and probably even one of the university’s top ten most successful grads.

(My money for the top UWO grad, however, is Craig Culver, the namesake of the custard-driven restaurant chain. Food fame will always trump political or media fame.)

VandeHei gave several speeches over the course of the weekend, focusing on everything from his time at UWO to the issue of fake news. The latter topic became a post on his company’s website and a featured point for Axios’ Mike Allen when he put out his “Axios AM: Mike’s Big 6” column:

VandeHei offered four fairly provocative ideas — one each for politicians, social media, reporters and individuals. Here’s the gist, adapted for Axios …

  • Politicians: Stop using the term “fake news.” The worst thing for a country is having people believe lies, or trust nothing. One day soon, something bad will happen, and it will take faith in information to fix it. You erode trust at our collective peril.
  • Media: News organizations should ban their reporters from doing anything on social media — especially Twitter — beyond sharing stories. Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics.
  • Social media companies: Radically self-regulate, or allow government regulation to stanch, the flow of disinformation or made-up news. Maybe it takes a new FCC of social media to force the same standards as expected from TV stations and newspapers. One thing is for sure: The current self-policing isn’t cutting it.
  • You: We all want to fault others, but each of us is very much to blame. Quit sharing stories without even reading them. Quit tweeting your every outrage. Quit clicking on garbage. Spend a few minutes to verify the trustworthiness of what you read.

Be smart … Remember: If your Facebook feed is filled with garbage, it means you were reading garbage in the first place. The algorithm simply gives you more of what you crave.

P.S. The Axios social media policy, which applies to all our colleagues, prohibits the sharing of political views or derogatory snark online: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.”

Before we dig into the guts of this, a couple key things are worth noting:

  • VandeHei gave at least three speeches/panel presentations that day and I was at most of them. This is one part of a larger discussion and it’s also boiled down a lot more, based on Axios’ “Smart Brevity” approach. Keep in this in mind when we get to the deeper discussion.
  • The audience for most of these presentations was students at UWO and recent graduates from UWO. Faculty (like me) and other folks (less-recent alumni, spouses of visitors etc.) were listening as well, but the this was mostly targeted at journalism students who were either really green or relatively green.
  • Full disclosure: I fanboyed out in meeting VandeHei, as I did with several other people there. I wanted to meet him and thank him for his generosity and assistance in supporting the student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, when we were in the middle of a $50,000 challenge grant to pay off a five-figure debt the paper sustained over the years. I admire the fact this guy built not one, but two successful media organizations in a time in which media itself is taking a beating and it seems like nobody is making money in journalism. It doesn’t mean I’m a shill for this guy or that I can’t think for myself on any of the points he made.
  • I was these events as a faculty member who was trying to help keep things running smoothly, not as an impartial media member, determined to write on this. I also geeked out meeting Cliff Christl, the longtime Green Bay Packers reporter and Packer historian. Same deal with getting to see Paige Bonanno of ABC Disney and others. Photos of me are floating around out there with these people.

Given that most of the media world couldn’t find Oshkosh with a map and a compass, it never dawned on me that anyone would hear anything about VandeHei’s speech, let alone take umbrage with his comments.

Shows what I know:

PoniTweet1PoniTweet2

(In case you don’t know who he is, James Poniewozik is the TV critic for the New York Times, a job he has held since 2015. Prior to that, he spent 16 years as a TV and media critic at Time. He has a degree in English from the University of Michigan and has studied creative writing at NYU.)

Poniewozik wasn’t the only critic of VandeHei’s position, but he was among the most prominent and he captured the majority of what I saw out there in terms of disagreement. Rather than trying to sort through all of Twitter, it seemed most germane to analyze this issue based on these seven tweets and try to incorporate additional information where I can.

Consider these four key thoughts:

 

Freak out if you want, but not on Poniewozik’s point:

I’m really stunned that the thing that didn’t REALLY freak people out was Vandehei’s third point: “Radically self-regulate, or allow government regulation to stanch, the flow of disinformation or made-up news. Maybe it takes a new FCC of social media to force the same standards as expected from TV stations and newspapers.”

The question of “Who decides?” will always be a concern when it comes to the regulation of speech or press. We live in a world in which First Amendment “goes too far” according to at least a quarter of the country, should be undercut by the “opening of libel laws” and the concept of what is “made-up news” seems to be in the eye of the politician.

A media person like VandeHei expressing an opinion on how to fight fake news (keep in mind, that’s the narrow window through which VandeHei is talking about these issues) is interesting. A fellow media person like Poniewozik arguing his opinion against VandeHei’s opinion is interesting, although starting to border on the “media talks about media” inside baseball I hate. The rest of the internet choosing sides on this is what the internet does until someone starts talking about “libtards” or someone else drags Trump and the Russians into it, at which point most of us go back to looking for cute micro-pig videos. I can take or leave that.

However, the last thing I would want at this point in time is some sort of “agency” to essentially engage in prior review and/or prior restraint either actively (through censorship) or passively (through policy that limits specific content). Of everything VandeHei said Friday, that was the one thing that really had the feeling of a truly awful idea. That said…

 

Absolutism is dumb…:

One of the easier ways to get in trouble as a writer is through absolutism. Whenever I read that something has “never” happened or that “everyone” thinks something or “it always” works that way, my internal BS detector kicks into high gear. Sure, there are a few firsts, lasts and onlies out there in a variety of fields, which is why Oddity is one of the five interest elements we espouse in the book. However, the odds of something being declared an absolute and something actually being an absolute are similar to the odds of winning the lottery.

Therefore, I’m not a huge fan of the line regarding the banning of reporters from doing anything on social media other than promoting stories. For my money, the P.S. at the bottom of the post espouses a much saner version of a social media policy: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.” This is a policy that places responsibility on the journalists and it also provides a much smarter way to look at this topic.

I can’t tell you how many times I practically broke out in hives when someone at one of the student media outlets I advised would say, “Oh, that photo/story/graphic is way too bloody/inaccurate/naked to run in the paper! Just stick it on the website…” The mentality seemed to be that journalistic standards of quality only applied to the dead-tree publications (and the over-the-airwaves broadcasts), but the web was this fun, scrappy kind of place where you could drop F-bombs and innuendo all day.

Media outlets that want people to take them seriously should establish more of a platform-neutral set of standards for content as opposed to thinking something you wouldn’t say on one platform is completely legitimate on another. Either way, a lock-down mentality of “never, never, never” is a bad idea and likely to lead to more harm than good.

 

…But uninformed ranting is dumber:

I love Axios’ concept of “Smart Brevity,” but it can lead to rabbit-hole criticism like Poniewozik’s tweets on the topic of tweeting an opinion. The whole post involved the idea of how to combat fake news, which got lost immediately upon conversion to Tweet-fighting. The line “Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics” becomes the flashpoint of the argument where Poniewozik equates VandeHei’s line to the concept of never publicly stating any opinion.

He then pushes the point, noting that never publicly stating an opinion is either a heinous form of concealment that treats the readers in a negative way or the inability of the journalists to form an opinion and thus idiocy on the part of the writers. Thus we get idiots, phonies and so forth.

Let’s unpack this a bit:

  •  Vandehei made it clear in his presentations that he stringently opposes news journalists using social media to express opinions that taint the readers’ ability to trust them.
    An example he used related to a city council meeting in which a reporter stated that some proposal was about to be debated and that people should stay tuned to his live tweets to figure out if two reps were going to screw people over (or words to that effect). In other words, if you are expecting a story based on the facts about some local content and the reporter is already calling a couple people involved chuckleheads, how can you trust that reporter on anything else he or she writes?

 

  • Journalists have ALWAYS developed, maintained and expressed opinions on the people they cover. I thought some sources I knew were honest while others I wouldn’t trust any farther than I could throw a cheesecake in a swimming pool. Some people were complete jerkwads while others bordered on handsy in their desperate need for my adulation. I had opinions on all of them.
    However, there’s a difference between going to the bar after work and telling your coworkers what a dipstick a county commissioner was during an interview and publicly issuing a “ready-to-go-viral” tirade about that person.
    I have often told students that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. A similar view on social media might be valuable: The duty to form an opinion is not the same as the duty to share it with the whole world in 280 characters or less.

 

  • Many differences exist among the positions of having an opinion, expressing an opinion, not developing any opinionated thought and the “snark, jokes and blatant opinion” elements outlined in the Axios post.
    Consider this spectrum of items you can use in expression:

    Fact (an indisputable element): Jim VandeHei spoke Friday at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh about fake news.

    Personal opinion (statement made to indicate personal belief): I think James Poniewozik raised interesting points, but was off base in his criticism of Jim VandeHei’s speech.

    Blatant opinion (A personal belief stated as fact): “This is dumb and treats Axios readers as if they are dumb.” OR “People don’t want you to be a robot. They want you to be FAIR.”

    Jokes (in this case, I’m guessing attempts at humor in an attempt to degrade or undermine an opposing source or the source’s position): Q: How do you get a University of Michigan graduate off your porch?  A: You pay for the pizza. OR Q: How many TV critics does it take to change a light bulb?  A: None, they just sit in the dark and write a scathing column about how illumination devices used to be so much better.

    Snark (probably closest to sarcasm or other biting comments intended on undercutting a position without relying on the joke format): James, if I need an analysis of “Cop Rock” or a creatively written haiku, I’ll give you a call. Otherwise, I’ll probably rely on the guy who actually has a journalism degree and runs a news organization to come up with some standards for the news media.

    There are levels to this and if I had to make a policy for pairing news journalists and social media, it would be a lot closer to the “stick to the facts for the most part, occasionally use the personal opinion when you can support it with facts and don’t do jokes, snark or blatant opinions.” But that’s my personal opinion.

 

  • Multiple people spoke on this topic and several of them agreed with VandeHei’s underlying premise: News journalists now are saying stuff on social media that would be way out of bounds in their traditional publications and that needs to stop. One of those people was Paul Anger, another UWO grad, who retired in 2015 as the editor and publisher of the Detroit Free-Press.  I’m not sure if he held to Axios’ absolutism policy regarding social media, but it was clear that his previous publications had specific standards and those included how people should act on social media. It’s not just VandeHei, although in being out front and at a major national political outlet, he’s going to get the most attention.

 

Consider the Audience

I frequently write about why it is important to understand your audience in crafting your message. To understand VandeHei’s statements, it’s important to keep that concept in mind.

Not to belabor the point, but he was speaking to students, student journalists and recent journalism grads (for the most part). As someone who often speaks to these students, I can tell you three immutable truths:

  1. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between fact and opinion when they see it in the media and when they write for the media.
  2. They don’t always see that they’re playing with live ammunition when they post things on social media.
  3. They are still learning how to work as journalists.

If this were a speech or panel at an SPJ or NAB or some other professional conference, the tone, nuance and depth might have differed here. Sure, the policy at Axios is still going to be the same, but there might be some additional discussion that merited digging into the gray areas. That’s not the case here as I had students in that audience who are still trying to figure out how to write a lead (or lede if you prefer).

Folks like Jim VandeHei and James Poniewozik have earned the fungus on their shower shoes, so maybe expressing opinions or using social media as they see fit makes sense for them. My students? Not so much, so slapping a few safety devices on these tools is probably a good idea. When they get to the stage of becoming experts on topics and they have opinions that are supported, well-reasoned and likely to benefit readers, it’s the perfect time for them to take to Twitter and share them. However, until that point, it’s probably best to hammer home the idea of playing it safe.

Also, being a professional media practitioner, or simply being educated, doesn’t mean you’re not going to fall on your keys on social media. Or, as Tweet 6 would note, come across as a “got-damn idiot.”

How “weasel voice” helped the New York Times build a 3,000-word narrative about a sexual con job in the “sugar dating” realm (and 3 reasons you should avoid the paper’s approach to this in your writing).

The basic rule of journalism that states, “Just tell me what happened and why I should care as a reader,” is often undermined when journalists rely on soft language and euphemisms. We talked about this at length in the discussion of “weasel voice” in writing and in terms of how writers get a bad rap for their linguistic gymnastics.

However, the following story was something weasel-riffic, thanks to an odd confluence of the story topic and the overwriting common to the New York Times. In the most basic terms, you could boil this story down to a simple sentence:

A woman using a borderline legal implied-sex-for-cash website got conned by a guy who claimed to be rich but wasn’t, thus leaving her stuck with a hotel bill after a three-way.

That sentence is 31 words, but the Times took a bit more time to tell this story. More than 3,000 words and one really awkward correction later, the Times’ had finished its clinic on euphemistic weasel voice. Consider some of the following descriptions and how you can practically see the writer using “air quotes” to the point of developing carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • The headline starts with the term “sugar date,” to describe the arrangement between young women and older men looking for an implied-sex-for-cash hook up.
  • A subhead refers to this concept as “Escorting 2.0,” like it’s some sort of software upgrade.
  • This chunk of text: Last winter, a friend told her about the concept of “sugar-dating”: a “sugar baby” (most often a woman or a gay man) connecting with a “sugar daddy” (a man) in a relationship that offers financial support in exchange for companionship and possibly sex. Accelerated by the anonymity of the internet, sugar-dating is a variation on “escorting,” that practice formerly advertised at the back of New York magazine and the now-defunct Village Voice newspaper. (When you need four sets of euphemism quotes and two parentheticals to get a concept across to your readers, you’re probably having a bad writing day.)
  • It refers to SeekingArrangements.com as “a website that helps people interested in monetized dating find each other.” I found it odd that the term “monetized dating” didn’t get quote marks, but it fits the bill of every other euphemism here for prostitution.
  • It uses the term “hypergamy” to refer to the concept of marrying for money.
  • It refers to the website’s founder’s other hookup site for married people who want to have sex with other people as part of an “ethical cheating” movement. This reminds me of other oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp” and “real artificial butter.”
  • This sentence officially lost me when it came to what gets the air quotes and what doesn’t: There, some 200 attendees, many silkily coifed young women, paid $50 apiece for admission to panels on topics like styling, personal branding and “financial literacy.” Why is “financial literacy” in quotes? What the heck could that possibly be euphemistic for?

By this point I “officially” ran out of “the overwhelming desire” to find the “air-quoted material” in this “story” about “sugar dating.” (I almost needed to buy a loot box full of air quotes for this post…)

This isn’t to pick on this particular writer or this particular topic, but it does raise some questions about what makes for a story, how you should tell the story and what is an acceptable amount of “weasel voice.” Consider the following points:

 

When you dig into a story that isn’t a story, consider Filak’s First Rule of Holes:

In reading this story, I found that there were about three or four directions this could have gone that would have been valuable to readers. It could have been a look at how the “sugar industry” works. It could have been about the dangers associated with “monetized dating.” It could have been about the legal issues surrounding these sites. It could have been about the long con this guy (and I’m sure others) are pulling on cash-strapped women who apply to the sites. I’m sure I’m missing other “deep digs” it could have hit.

Instead, it kind of talked about each of these in passing all while telling this one story about this person who was taken advantage of by one guy at one point in time. If she had been a narrative thread for any of these larger concerns, this might have been worth 3,000+ words. However, she was the whole point, which made this feel… perplexing. I found myself like “The Bobs” in this “Office Space” interview:

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to write, so when you find that a story isn’t really doing a whole heck of a lot, you might want to reconsider your approach, your sources or your sense that this is a story at all. Follow Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find your self in one, stop digging.

 

A Feature Approach Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Doing Journalism

When I first taught feature writing, I had a full class of 15 students and at least that many on the waiting list. They came with the idea that the class fell somewhere between creative writing and a haiku seminar. By the time they figured out how I ran the class, I think I was down to eight students and nobody on the waiting listed wanted to join in the fun.

Features require observation, depth and clarity that couple with strong reporting and valuable content. The observation part was there, almost to a fault, in that I felt like I was reading one of George R.R. Martin’s descriptions of meals in the “Game of Thrones” series or Bret Easton Ellis’ “label-dropping” in the first chapter of “American Psycho.” (I had to Google some make-up and hair-do terminology as well as find out what made certain hotels worth name-dropping…)

However, the story failed to measure up in terms of meeting journalistic rigor for reporting and storytelling standards. If this guy really is conning multiple women on this site, why is he not being reported to some form of authority? If the site is doing a “caveat emptor” approach, that’s one big story. If the police don’t have a tool for stopping this, that’s another big story. (And possibly a call for some legislative discussion as there was to establish punishment for revenge porn and up-skirt photography.)

At the very least, if he’s a scummy weasel, as the author seemed to confirm, why did this guy get away without being named? That was a confusing choice.

Why is this a story now? Even features need a time peg. Is the site changing its approach? Is “Ron/Jay/Mr. Mystery” back on the prowl again? Is there a new law or a new rule that makes this relevant? This isn’t a case of “She should have come forward earlier,” as people can tell their stories at any point they so choose. That said, the writer needs to make it clear why we’re hearing it now and why it should matter to the readers now.

At least a half dozen other holes emerge in the reporting here and there, often brushed over with a weak parenthetical explanation. The writer owes the readers value and clarity. Neither seem prominent here.

 

Avoid Words That Obscure Reality

When you find yourself using jargon, euphemism or other code words in your writing, you aren’t helping your readers understand your story. This tends to happen when technical topics overwhelm reporters or when PR professionals use terms common to their field but that other people don’t understand.

This isn’t to say that you should blunt the language to the point of distraction, but there has to be a limit as to how much “air quoting” or euphemistic writing you should do. The chunk of weasel voice outlined above clearly demonstrates this, but here’s a paragraph with one term that still has me puzzled:

He said that he looked for women on SeekingArrangement and advertised himself on Tinder as a “sugar daddy” — his profile urged women to “swipe right if looking to be spoiled” — solely because he thought it was a good way to meet women for non-transactional hookups.

I’m uncertain as to the pairing of “non-transactional” and “hookup” in that sentence or if it means what the guy, the writer or what I thought it meant. (Another Google search led me down the path of software engineering… I think… before I found the “do’s” and “don’t’s” of being “an aspiring sugar baby” at the Thought Catalog site. It made me want to beg my wife to never leave me, for fear of what’s in the dating pool out there, and then it made me want to take a potato peeler to my eyeballs.)

Since you can’t use terms like “money for sex” or more direct terms without running afoul of the law, the author here (and others as well) refer to this as “transactional relationships.” A “non-transactional” relationship, thus would appear to be one that lacked a quid-pro-quo approach to the interaction. Or, as you would normally call it, a “relationship.”

When the author refers to this guy running his game on the site in this way, it sounds like he’s saying he puts himself out there as a rich guy because he figured he’d attract women even though he never had any intention of paying them.

If that’s the case, say that. As a reader, I would then be able to say, “Wait a minute, isn’t that fraud? I think I saw a ‘Law & Order: SVU’ episode on that topic at one point…” If that’s not what he meant, make it clearer what he was saying. It’s not a direct quote, so the euphemism is that of the writer. As it stands, I have no idea what I’m seeing.

And that’s the larger point about this article and the writing style: Euphemism and jargon kill it under the guise of a feature format and the effort to make this appear less shady than it is.

I’m not making a moral argument here. You want to hook up with people for any reason whatsoever, go for it. You want to write about those people, that’s fine, too. I’ve read news stories that would make John Waters blush and a Billy Goat puke. That’s not the issue. It’s the lack of directness that limits good writing and quality journalism.

It’s why news obituaries use the term “died” instead of “passed away,” “expired” or “spun from the mortal coil.” It’s also why we avoid phrases like “now singing with the angels” or “resting safely in the arms of Jesus.” (I’ve seen all of these at one point or another.) They obscure reality and make life difficult on the readers.

The fact of the matter is these terms like “sugar baby” and “sugar daddy” and “monetized dating” are easy enough to translate from weasel voice into more direct language. In not doing so, the author harmed the story, irritated the readers and provided little to the sum of human knowledge. If you face situations where people try to obscure reality by telling you they “depopulated an area with an explosive aerial assault” (bombed a village) or “engaged in disinformation” (lied) or “exchanged angry hand gestures” (raised their middle fingers), you need to cut through the obfuscation and give your readers a clear sense of reality.

In short, just tell me what happened and why I care in a clear, concise and coherent way.

“Here is someone who has power and money trying to bully us into taking down negative coverage:” 3 things you can learn from an award-winning journalist’s fight to keep his work public.

As a reporter for Great 98 in Mayville, Wisconsin, Alex Crowe found himself digging into allegations of corruption and special treatment in the city’s police department. His work looked into a Department of Justice investigation that revealed the department helped cover up a drug-related offense at the request of an officer. Tom Poellot, the officer accused of trying to cover for his son, denied that he was involved in any alterations to that police report, even though that information was included in a criminal complaint filed against former Mayville Police Chief Christopher MacNeill.

Crowe’s efforts garnered a lot of attention for the station’s news operation and earned him a first-place award from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in the category of Best Significant Community Impact in 2017.

A year or so later, everything went to hell in a speedboat.

Poellot’s lawyer contacted the station and demanded the station pull down the articles, claiming Crowe broke the law in his reporting.

“He claims we violated Wisconsin Statutes Section 938.396(1)(b)(1)  which says you cannot identify a minor involved in a crime,” Crowe wrote in an email. “I wrote that Poellot’s son had been caught at school, but never identified the kid. All word-for-word form DOJ criminal complaint against MacNeill.”

Crowe said the attorney had been extremely aggressive in his approach and Crowe’s superiors at the station were concerned enough to consider pulling the stories off line and scrubbing them from all social media. The costs associated with a protracted legal fight were also potentially prohibitive, Crowe was told.

To better understand the legal issues associated with his stories, Crowe contacted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit group that “provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.”

“I sent an email late one night, and received a call back literally minutes later from a lawyer in D.C. who was furious with the way we were being treated,” Crowe wrote. “She put me in contact with a lawyer in Madison who works with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as well as the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. He was able to cite specific Wisconsin State Statutes that provide protections for the press, as well as refute the chief/lawyer’s claims that we were in violation of a different set of statutes. We told the other side that we had been in contact with multiple lawyers who helped us put together a response, and have not heard back from the lawyer representing the chief in Cudahy for weeks. Hopefully, the matter has been resolved.”

(The stories are still available on the Great 98 website here and here and you, so feel free to read them. They’re truly great bits of quality local journalism. If you want to hear what Crowe said about them for this blog when they first came out, you can click here and here.)

I asked Crowe what he learned from this experience and he had a few tips. Below are some of his thoughts (in quotes) and three things I think you can take away from this experience:

 

Pair intuition and research before you respond.

When I worked as a journalist, a student newspaper adviser, and even as a professor, I would hear about ridiculously absurd statements people would make about the intersection of law and the media. Stuff like:

  • “You can’t publish the name of a criminal because the person could sue us.”
  • “We don’t have to release that document (to the media) because we don’t feel you are entitled to it.”
  • “We know we released that document, but we sent you the wrong one and we’re relying on your ethical integrity as a journalist to destroy it and let us send you a new one.”
  • “You published my son’s name in the paper! I’m suing you for making him look bad.” (The “son” had been arrested after participating in a violent, public altercation. I imagine THAT might have made him look bad, but what do I know?)

My favorite one was a response to an open records request in which we were denied access to a set of evaluations that a search committee had inadvertently made public. The responding records keeper stated that the documents were available under some arcane part of Indiana law in which they weren’t public, but rather more like interoffice memos meant to be shared only among about 30,000 students, faculty and staff on the campus. Just not for publication in the student newspaper, with its circulation of about 10,000.

When it came to Crowe’s situation, it felt like bullying to me. The use of a lawyer and a specific state statute can scare the hell out of anyone who isn’t a legal expert. The phrase, “Do X or we’re going to sue you” coming from a lawyer can make you want to cower in a corner and say, “Please don’t hurt me!” Instead, find your own ringer in this game and see what he or she can do to balance the playing field.

Whenever someone threatens to sue you or withholds a document from you or does anything else like that, take a few moments and start processing what you have heard in a logical fashion. Once you do this a few times (and take a decent com law class), you can develop a pretty good BS detector. Let intuition guide you, and then do some research, call some experts and figure out how accurate this information actually is.

“I would encourage any student to read up on the laws/statutes in their state that regard to reporting and publishing of information, because we really needed to know what the law said and who it protected before crafting a response,” Crowe said.

The more you know, the better off you are.

 

You’re not in this alone. Use your network to find help.

When Crowe first was told he would have to take down the stories, he reached out to me and I helped direct him to the RCFP. How did I know to do this? I didn’t, so I asked a couple of the legal eagles I knew, who had seen this kind of thing before and they pointed me toward that group.

When we talk about “networking” in college classes, this is the kind of thing we’re trying to get across. People you meet and connect with can help you. If those people don’t have the answers, chances are pretty good they’ll know someone who does have the answers.

“I would HIGHLY encourage students to get informed about resources available to them, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,” Crowe said. “If I wasn’t able to get professional assistance from that organization, I would have been forced to pull the story and it would have been erased from online archives as well.”

For students, the Student Press Law Center is a great resource and the folks there can help with free legal advice when your attempt to do journalism runs into someone else’s desire for you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing.

The ability to say, “Oh, you think you’re going to back me into a corner? That’s not going to happen because I have a lawyer, too” must feel so good. I know it’s probably nothing like this, but I always loved this line from Andrew Garfield in “The Social Network.”

 

Figure out if this is the hill you are willing to die on and if the juice is worth the squeeze. Then act accordingly.

I just managed to merge two of my favorite Filak-isms into one subhead, so it’s a good day for me. The point is that you need to figure out if it’s worth it to fight back and how far you are willing to go to defend that position. In some cases, the ask is minimal and the degree to which they are a pain in your keester is maximum, so you do it, even though you could stand your ground on an issue.

In this case, however, Crowe saw a much bigger picture and a much more important issue:

“Honestly, it was mostly about the principle of the matter,” Crowe stated. “We did absolutely nothing wrong in our reporting, yet here is someone who has power and money trying to bully us into taking down negative coverage that he doesn’t like while hiding behind his son as a means to try and get the story taken down. I didn’t like the fact that I was being asked to take my very legitimate reporting down just because the subject didn’t like what was written.

“We took our information directly from the DOJ/DCI report, along with other pillars of good reporting (including) interviews and in-person courtroom coverage…” he added. “It was important to keep the work published because, in my mind, if we have to take one story down after a bogus legal threat, that just opens the door for others to follow suit.”

The idea of opening Pandora’s Box or creating a “slippery slope” can occasionally be much ado about nothing. In this case, however, if he backed down, he might have found himself having to back off repeatedly, as his station would have established a problematic precedent: If we punch you hard enough in the nose (legally speaking), you will hide important news we don’t want people to see.

“I’ve learned that there are people who will do whatever it takes to try and get negative coverage erased from the internet,” he said. “This went way beyond someone trying to scrub their image. This is the first time I have had someone really come after me personally for something I reported on, and no matter how legit the reporting was, the lawyers kept coming.”

When you face a situation like this, you’ll be put to the test and you’ll need to determine how far you are willing to go to do what you think is right. Then, you’ll have to be willing to deal with the fall out. In either case, you’ll need to know that you can live with yourself after you make that choice and take your stand.

You might not win every time, but you’ll sleep better at night.

 

 

 

No Laughing Matter: The real-life impacts of student media

Student media is no joke.

That’s (at least) one of the take-aways you should get from the recent coverage of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The Senate confirmed Kavanaugh on Saturday, 50-48, which was the narrowest approval margin of a Supreme Court justice in modern U.S. history. In the middle of the discussions on sexual assault, mental acuity and the degree to which beer is to be enjoyed, sits this image of Kavanaugh from his high school yearbook:

KavanaughYearbook

Never in my life, let alone in my high school days, would I imagine whatever I wrote in my senior yearbook being dissected like conspiracy theorists going over the Zapruder film. I’m sure Kavanaugh feels the same way right about now, as students in most of America’s senior classes are now rethinking whatever they told “that geek from the yearbook staff” to run next to their picture.

(SIDE NOTE: Prior to writing this post, I dug out the dusty volumes from Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, wondering what the heck I  might have done or said at that point. Fortunately for me, my school pictures appeared to have caught me between mullets and the senior quote was something I ripped off of the inside of a Rolling Stones album I was way too into that year. At worst, my club choices could be questioned (computer gaming, debate, Young Republicans, forensics, chess), but no “boof” or “ralph club” entries, thankfully.)

Kavanaugh wasn’t the only judge to have people questioning some “back in the day” student media content. During her 2016 run for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, Judge Rebecca Bradley’s college writing came to the forefront, specifically a 1992 piece in which she referred to gay people as “queers” and AIDS patients “degenerates.” Bradley apologized for the pieces and later went on to win reelection.

It’s not just judges who recently had some student media content called on the carpet. Other people in political and public life have found their writings from early adulthood

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) had a column he wrote in 1992 for his student newspaper at Stanford come to light, in which he discusses an ill-conceived attempt at “stealing second” with a less-than-willing date. The column had come up multiple times throughout the years, but a recent Washington Post article brought it back into the public consciousness during the Kavanaugh hearings. Booker stated in the column it was his interaction on that date that helped him realize the toxicity of masculinity that drove men to aggressively pursue sexual conquests. Others have argued it’s still a case of sexual assault, regardless of his revelations.

Public statements as a student can come back to haunt you, so it’s vital to think before you publish anything, even if it’s not formally part of student media. A few quick angry tweets from her college days cost Taylor Palmisano, then 23, a job with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s reelection campaign. Palmisano cursed about wanting to “choke that illegal mex cleaning in the library” in one tweet and then disparaged “#illegalaliens” who wouldn’t control their children on a bus she was riding to Las Vegas.

There have to be dozens of other examples of people writing things, tweeting things, posting things or sharing content during their early adult years that came back to be less-than-pleasing to the eyes currently. In some cases, these things are like bad fashion, as I’m sure the guy who got the Tim Tebow as a centaur tattoo is clearly regretting earlier life choices. (I, on the other hand, would gladly take back my “mega-mullet” in a heartbeat if it meant I could have a full head of hair again.)

In other cases, these things are like the stench of a dead fish that got wedged under the front seat of your car for a month in the middle of August: It’s godawful and it’s never going away.

With that in mind, the lesson here is a simple one: Before you publish content, think really hard about how important it is for this to stick with you for a lifetime.

 

 

 

Learn from the worst! The 3 top tips for balancing college and journalism (and the ways I failed at them but still hung in there)

The good folks at the Poynter Institute built a nice list of nine things to help you balance your college life with your journalism life. Of all the tips listed here, I would have to place my highest level of support on the last three:

Take care of yourself.

Learn to say no.

Do your best not to compare yourself.

These are also the three HARDEST ones to really accomplish, at least they were for me and the majority of students I have encountered over the last 20-plus years in higher education. As “Knish” said in “Rounders,” here’s a chance to learn from the bad beats I took in these areas:

 

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF:

Truth be told, I never really took care of myself in the way in which the Poynter piece explains. I often thought a balanced meal was a bag of Doritos in one hand and a can of Coke in the other. I would stock my desk drawers with protein bars and Girl Scout cookies so I wouldn’t starve while working on a deadline. I’d often get light-headed at certain points in the day, only to realize, I forgot to eat at all that day.

“Vegetable” was an obscenity and I only ran when I was being chased. I knew the guy who opened and closed the campus McDonald’s by name and he knew me by sight. After pulling an all-nighter, I’d head over there and wait for him to open up so I could get my two Egg McMuffins and hash browns, which always sounded so good at the time and yet wreaked havoc with my digestive system for the rest of the day. When Big Macs went on sale at 2 for $2, I bought four, eating one right away and metering out the other three throughout the day. I can’t think of anything as disgusting as a 16-hour-old, room-temperature Big Mac. Unless it was a 16-hour-old, 99-cent Whopper from the campus Burger King.

Sleep was what other people got while I was working on a story for the paper or trying to fix its finances. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” I told people who asked why I looked like something out of a zombie movie. My friend Tony once replied, “That’ll be sooner than you think if you keep this (stuff) up.” It was also what a few of my fellow journalism students occasionally got in class, sawing logs loudly in the middle of lectures. There was nothing quite as embarrassing as the time a professor in a pit class asked me to “kindly wake the gentleman sitting next to you.”

There’s no “Behind the Music” story here, though. I made it through just fine. However, I know that I was sick a lot more often in those days and illnesses tended to linger more. I can blame my baldness on stress, but I’m sure hereditary issues played a major role as well. I will confess, however, that I was a raging a-hole during that time and the lack of sleep, good nutrition and stress reduction probably played a major role in that. I’m an awkwardly social human being to begin with, but I know I wasn’t making friends and influencing people with that kind of behavior.

Treating yourself better leads to feeling better and that helps you in acting better. In short, you become a much higher quality of human being and most people will appreciate that. At least, that’s what other people tell me…

 

LEARN TO SAY NO:

The “Just Say No” phenomenon was a big deal when I was a kid. I said no to drugs, just like the First Lady told me to, but almost nothing else. To borrow another quote from the 1980s:

Between the standard Catholic guilt and the constant refrain of “this is going to look GREAT on a resume,” I think I participated in about 912 things, all at the same time. In addition, I couldn’t say no to the student newspaper when it needed a story written or a financial overhaul. I couldn’t say no when the State Journal offered an extra shift or an extra assignment. I wouldn’t say no to almost anything that looked like it would give me an inch up on the competition within the school, the job market or anything else.

Years later, I found out from a conversation with a hiring manager at a major sports website that most of those things probably didn’t matter all that much. (OK, the extra State Journal shifts kept me from going broke, but in terms of making me a Golden God of a candidate, none of my actions got me there.) The reason, he noted, was that most people in his position don’t care about what I did or how much of it I did. Rather, they cared about what I could do for their company or their organization.

In other words, working for work’s sake didn’t help a lot. What would have been better would have been a more strategic approach to doing certain things well that would have showcased my talents to the people who did the hiring.

I always felt like I gave my best effort each time I was trying to do something someone had asked of me. However, the more things I juggled, the lower the bar was for “my best” and I usually found myself hampered by a lack of focus or other impediments. I can’t even remember the number of times I was sick with a cold or something, but I took on an extra shift or agreed to stay late at work or something. I was practically mainlining DayQuil or whatever the cheap gas-station equivalent was to keep from hacking up a lung. My head felt like it was floating above my body and I was nowhere near “my best.”

At least once I answered the city desk phone at the State Journal in such a state and forgot where I was, only saying, “Uh… Hi?” to the person on the other end. My editor sent me home in one such situation and I panicked about how this would “look on my performance evaluation.”

The point is, even if you are awesome (which I wasn’t), you can only do so much. You might be able to do one or two or even three things at a top-notch level. However, once you get past that in terms of commitments, you’re going to slip here and there and nothing good is going to come of that.

On occasion, just say no.

 

DO YOUR BEST NOT TO COMPARE YOURSELF

If I could figure out a way to get all my students to abide by this rule, I could solve any other problem on Earth, including world hunger and how to avoid getting sucked into a “Real Housewives” marathon for no good reason.

Social comparisons happen all the time, so much so, there is literally a psychological theory based entirely around this concept. I remember reading about psych experiments where people were offered X dollars but if they took it, another person in the study would get Y dollars. What researchers found is that some people would take less money overall if it meant the gap between what they got and what the other person got was larger.

In other words, instead of taking something like $100 and letting the experimenter pay the other person $90, the subject would take $50 if the other person only got $5 or something. It makes no sense financially or logically, but it clearly demonstrates how people get locked into a comparative value struggle and do their best to “win” it.

I’ve seen this way, way, way too many times with my students over the years, particularly at some of the higher-ranked J-schools. If Bill got an internship at a top 50 marketing firm, Suzie felt the need to get an internship at a top 25 marketing firm. If Jayne got a job at a 100,000 circulation newspaper, Bobby felt the need to get a job at a 250,000 circulation publication.

It led some of my best students down the rabbit hole, going after jobs they hated or pursuing careers that didn’t fit their skills. I had a lot of sobbing seniors in my office, complaining about how someone else was clearly better because of a better internship or something. I had a lot of “quarter-life crisis” kids dropping by my office on random week days, asking me if they were wasting their lives.

I get that social comparison is a big deal, and I know it took me a while to figure that out as well. However, you should just do you to the best of your ability. The sooner you figure out that life isn’t perfect for your friends or peers, regardless of how often they self-aggrandize on FaceBook, you can relax and just enjoy the weirdness that is your own path through the jungle of life.

 

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.