Congratulations to the college media award winners (and an explanation as to why not winning shouldn’t bother you too much) A Throwback Post

A number of my good friends have been proudly announcing their students’ good fortunes recently, as the College Media Association has announced its list of finalists for the Pinnacle Awards and the Associated Collegiate Press has announced its list of finalists for the Pacemaker Awards. These accolades recognize high levels of achievement in student media and to win one means a great deal to everyone involved.

In watching the social media posts from these adviser folks slide through my various feeds, I felt especially grateful that I wasn’t advising any more. This time of the year was always ridiculously stressful for my student media staffs, each of which were desperately checking their emails or refreshing websites to see if the finalists had been announced. The anxiety levels of “Did we win?” were just far too much to bear in many cases.

As great as it was to win something, I often found that it meant less than it should have in some cases because people had come to expect greatness from certain staffs. It was like the old Soviet Red Army hockey team: They won and won and won, so there was nothing but either the status quo or true disaster.

I also know a lot of staffs put in a lot of effort and when their names don’t show up on these lists, it’s like getting stabbed in the heart. What did we do wrong? What should we have done differently? Why do we suck? (The answers are nothing, nothing and you don’t suck.)

Today’s throwback post is meant not to throw dirt on anyone’s accomplishments, but to better help the majority of folks out there who didn’t grasp the brass ring understand why they should still feel good about their work and not feel so bad that they didn’t get the awards. It might also be helpful in the future to those folks who “succeeded” this time but might end up “failing” next time.


“We lost. This sucks.” Why not making the cut for journalism awards shouldn’t bother you so much.

Fall convention and awards season for college media is officially in the books, after the annual conference closed up shop in D.C. last week. ACP’s Pacemaker winners, CMA’s Pinnacle winners and the media convention’s best of show provided the student publications with a chance to strut their stuff and get recognized for their hard work.

When I posted the Pacemaker list a month or so ago, I got a few messages here and there from folks about “awards season.” They can be boiled down to a few simple thoughts:

  • You seem to hate awards even as you worked for places that won boatloads of them. What gives?
  • It’s great for the people who won, sure, but we lost. This sucks.

I never liked awards much, even when we were winning them, because they don’t mean what people think they mean. Even worse, administrators placed far too high of a value on them, equating award-winning publications with valuable publications. I watched as my students fell under that assumption as well, with the concept of “must-win” casting millstones around their necks and dragging them down into fear and anxiety.

The most vivid convention memory I have is one in which we were up for a major national award. My editor, a young woman with a brilliant track record and an impeccable intellect, sat quietly in the ballroom with me and several staffers. As the announcer began to read off names of winners and “not-quite winners,” I saw her hunched over, almost in pain as she rocked back and forth mumbling something. A student later told me, he heard her saying, “Please… Please… Please…” over and over again.

When our school was announced as a winner, she managed to straighten up and walk up to the front like a newborn deer that was just gaining its legs. She produced a wan smile for the photographer who shot a grip-and-grin image, and she retreated to spot in the audience. She smiled for about three seconds and then said, “What happens if we don’t win NEXT year?” The moment was over. It was already about doing it again.

This isn’t a one-off thing either. A good friend of mine mentioned that he still occasionally feels the sting of being the “one who broke the streak” when it came to winning his state’s “College Paper of the Year” contest. He’s in his 30s, he has a wife and a kid and he lives a wonderful life. Still, it’s the one that got away.

When it comes to contests, I’ve been on all three sides of this: The person putting in for an award, the person judging who should get an award and the person running an organization that needs to provide the awards. With that background, I’ve been able to tell students something that they don’t want to hear, that never seems to make the loss any better and that still is accurate in every way possible:

“Awards are great things and you should be proud to win one. However, they aren’t the end-all and be-all of life. These contests border on being entirely random when it comes to what makes the cut and what doesn’t, so when you win something, you should be honored, but don’t let it get to your head. When you don’t win something, you should NOT let it make you feel inferior, as there’s often more at play than just who did the best work.”

Michael Koretzky, a longtime journalist, student-media adviser and contest judge, laid out his “Confessions of Journalism Contest Judge” about a year ago. I’m not 100% in agreement with him on everything here, but he covers a lot of the angles when it comes to looking behind the curtain and seeing the great and powerful Oz is actually just a regular guy.

Before you read on, this isn’t meant to denigrate places that win stuff or give you a bunch of excuses if you don’t win. Sometimes, other people are just better or we just don’t make the cut. I’d like to think that everything we sent was gold, but if I had to be fair about it, when we lost, we probably deserved to lose. (And if I wanted to be even fairer, we probably won a few times when we shouldn’t have.)

The reason I’m opening this can of worms is because I see the devastated look on students’ faces too often after they don’t win stuff like this. They can’t distinguish between “My entry wasn’t good enough to win this year” and “I personally suck and should go die in a fire somewhere.” No matter what advisers say or what professors say or even what Mom says about you being just as good and just as gifted, it’s hard to see things that way when someone else is hoisting the hardware.

Here’s a look at a few key things that should help you feel not so bad about not winning awards for your hard work:

Showcase Editions on Steroids: I read a book once in which the author referred to the Russian concept of pokazuka, a slang term that means “just for show.” The idea dated back to the Potemkin villages and the tours of them that Catherine the Great used to take. To puff up their status, restaurants would cram their menus with foods that they didn’t have, farms would be quickly put into the wasteland to showcase unreal agriculture and everyone wore their Sunday best like it was common. This impressed the great leader and she marveled at her kingdom. When she left, the place went back to the same craphole it always was.

A lot of publications rely on pokazuka when it comes to contests. For example, one convention’s “best of show” required that the schools enter their most recent copy of the paper. Naturally, everyone knew when the convention was, so some papers would save the big features, the photo essays, the double-truck spreads and more for that issue.

Then, if you were really lucky, an administrator would resign, someone would crash a car on campus or some other form of insane entropy would occur while you were working on the paper: Bam! Breaking news gets added to the mix. When my livelihood came down to winning these things, we’d run multi-section papers, full color and insane graphics projects. My feature class always had a feature or two that was insanely long or good (or hopefully both) and we’d dump that in there as well. It turned out OK in many cases and even better in others.

Thus, rest assured, it wasn’t that your regular Tuesday paper wasn’t good enough. You just didn’t feed it enough steroids.


Making it rain: It’s not always about the quality of your entry, but rather the quantity of your entries.

For one contest, (again, back when my livelihood depended on such things) I found that we could enter the main event for X dollars: Send your five best papers and see if you win the big prize. However, with that X dollars, you were able to enter a certain number of individual entries for free as well, such as best news story, best front-page design, best column and so forth. If you wanted to enter more than that, it was like two bucks per entry. I started doing the math and I realized that I could do a hell of a lot of entering at that nominal rate.

I would require the upper editors to come to the newsroom on one Saturday before the deadline and we would spend all day there finding entries, pasting them up (pre-digital stuff) and signing forms. I’d buy lunch and dinner because it usually took about 13 to 16 hours to do all of it, but in the end, we’d have hundreds of entries.

It wasn’t that I was entering crap, but I stopped debating the minor merits of Entry Candidate A as opposed to those of Entry Candidate B. I just sent them both, as well as Candidates C through Z. It was like the Lazlo Approach to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes in “Real Genius:”

In other words, just keep shooting and eventually you’ll hit. And we did. Bigly.

I can’t remember what the record overall was, but we swept through categories like Grant going through Richmond, often taking first through third and all three honorable mentions. In other cases, we might only grab one honorable mention, but it was still an award and it still meant something to a kid who earned it.

I couldn’t be certain that people weren’t just giving us an award because we had so damned many entries in each area and they felt a duty to give us SOMETHING. After all, it might have backfired on us if our massive presence meant people got annoyed. However, it didn’t seem to go that way, as we won more and more each year I did it.

So, you might be competing with a maniac out there like this, who essentially wipes out a forest of redwoods and overburdens the postal service with the idea of making it rain on a contest.


You hit into the shift: Baseball used to be relatively simple in terms of infield play: Two people on the left of second base, two on the right. Now, thanks to moneyball and advanced metrics, almost every pro game features more shifting than a fat guy trying to get comfortable in an airplane seat. You get three on the left or the right. You get right fielder playing like a deep roving second baseman. If they could let the peanut vendor stand to the left of the first baseman, I’d imagine we’d see that, too.

Thus, what used to be hits aren’t hits anymore. You essentially get unlucky in some truly unfair ways. That said, sometimes you get lucky and the shift benefits you, like when a left-handed power hitter accidentally check-swings a double down the left-field line while everyone on Earth (including the peanut vendor) is crowded on the right side of the diamond.

For example, one national convention tried to prevent people from steroiding up their editions for entry, so they set it up that you had to submit a certain number of issues from certain time periods. In one case, they kept those time periods so consistent that people could do the “steroids” thing and just pour resources into those papers during those time periods and then cycle off for another month or two. However, what tended to happen was that a few people got fortunate and other people got unfortunate. That giant scandal you covered for five weeks that brought down an administration? Yeah. Wrong weeks. The National Championship your school won, which you covered in glowing visual and graphic detail? Wrong weeks.

However, for some people, the ball bounced the other way: Their big stories synced up beautifully with the selected weeks and they get lucky as hell.

Luck plays a pretty big role in some of these things…


The Greg Maddux Theory of Being Great: Reputation matters an unfortunate amount when it comes to contests. That’s not to say that the reputations are unearned or that those are the only reasons why people from “Name Programs” win stuff, but reputations add a lot to the mix.

It’s a lot like when Greg Maddux used to pitch in the majors. He established himself as a guy who was always able to throw the ball EXACTLY where he wanted and that he was always able to hit the corners of the plate. He earned the reputation fair and square. However, Maddux didn’t ALWAYS hit the corner on every pitch. However, since he had the reputation of always throwing strikes, the umps gave him the benefit of the doubt and called a lot of balls strikes, thus making Maddux happy and pissing off the rest of the league.

The unfortunate comparative here is that when the “Name Programs” enter contests, they get the benefit of the doubt. They get the second look. They get the, “Oh, that’s OK” pass on a minor misstep here or there. They also get judges thinking they’re seeing something “groundbreaking” when it really might just be crap.

I worked at a couple of the “best” schools when it came to writers and designers and we had some great kids. However, the truth is that we had just as many kids who couldn’t find their asses with two hands and a flashlight as anywhere else. We had kids who designed pages that looked like a ransom note mated with a Rorschach test. We had kids who wrote narrative leads that sounded like they were conceived on acid. Still, having that “Name Program” rep got their work a second look.

In one case of judging, I was picking through publications to see who would make the cut for a collection of national awards. As Koretzky noted, a lot of the first pass is about skimming out stuff that’s not good, so my job was to eliminate stuff before a group of us would come together to and debate the merits of what was left. I kept tossing the ones that didn’t make the cut on the floor next to me and eventually the contest coordinators came by to scoop them up.

At one point, one of them picked up a paper and handed it to the other with a worried look. They both murmured something like, “Uh.. Uh-oh…” I asked what the problem was and they said, “Well, this paper ALWAYS wins an award so we’re just surprised…”

OK, but that year it sucked and I started laying out why I thought it wasn’t going to make it. They both backed off immediately, but as they walked away, I heard one of them say something to the effect of how upset the adviser at that publication was going to be.

Part of me wanted to give it another look because I started to doubt myself, even though I knew I was right. The other part of me got pissed that I was second-guessing myself because of the reputation other people had conferred upon this publication. It stayed out of the stack, but that bugged me. And it still does.


Judges are human… : The word “judge” seems to communicate fairness, clarity, wisdom and more. For most of the media contests, however, the word “judge” seems to translate to “person who answered the email plea for help.” Koretzky does more than an adequate job of going over this, so I won’t belabor it here. What I will talk about is the ways in which human failings can lead you to miss out on the prize you covet.

We get tired, so we might glaze over an error that should have bounced out a competitor or we might glaze over while reading your amazing prose. We can get grumpy about something in particular that leads us to be overly harsh in making the first cut. (Personal beef: I hate verb-noun attributions. When I see them I start to twitch. I try to push past it in judging contest entries, but it does take a toll. I know I’m not the only one with a personal gripe that can nudge something to the “pitch” pile.)

We also don’t all have the same experiences, which can lead to vastly different readings of pieces. Case in point: I was judging a pro contest with two other people and we individually needed to pull our personal finalists that we would then debate as a group. In the column-writing category, the best column out of the entire pack, in my opinion, was this one that reflected on how getting the one thing you always wanted sometimes was more about the memories it created than the item itself.

The guy who wrote it was in his mid-50s and he used the analogy of how he and his brothers begged for Electric Football for Christmas.

His parents kept saying no, but eventually they relented and that Christmas was a joyful one. However, it went beyond that to explain how that game and that joy and that experience became their sibling touchstone for years to come.

For me, it was the slam-dunk winner. For the other two people? It didn’t even make it out of the junk pile.

“I never heard of this stupid game,” one judge said. “Why would people watch little plastic guys vibrate on a table?”

The other judge added, “Did kids really play with that?”

Um… YES! It was the greatest game on Earth at the time and it was something we all desperately wanted. Even if it wasn’t, it was more of a metaphor for the connectivity of siblings. Hell, even I knew that and I was an only child. Still, the more I tried to explain this, the less they seemed to see the value in it.

Another point was why didn’t the kids just go out and buy it themselves? Well, because not all of us were rich, so we had to beg for stuff for Christmas.

It was clear that my experiences didn’t match theirs and it was an impediment in the judging process.

The column didn’t win first prize, but with a lot of argumentation, it made the top five.


…And occasionally biased as hell: In some cases, judges play favorites. This can be because they know a program, they worked some place or they are friends with an adviser. The converse can also be true, if a program, place or adviser really pissed off the judge. We do our best to ignore those things and if we’re really ethical, we spend a lot of time trying to make sure we don’t fall into that trap.

In college media, a lot of state contests get judged by people who used to be in student media, so they carry those battle scars with them. If you think I’m kidding, ask someone who worked for the Daily Cardinal what they think about the Badger Herald. These two papers competed as dailies at UW-Madison for decades and if you find someone in his or her 30s, 50s or 70s today who worked on one side of the newspaper war, they STILL hold grudges.

I also know that when I needed judges, I always went to former students who were currently in the field. At first, this made sense because they’re pros, they tend to owe me a favor and I can hold their feet to the fire in case they let the thing slide. However, in retrospect, I wondered if the judges held on to little biases based on how snotty bigger schools had been to them or been more open minded when it came to schools like the ones they attended.

That can make for some difficult judging decisions.

Then there are cases like this one that I experienced on a “shared judging” assignment:

We were looking at high school papers to determine which ones would be finalists for a set of national awards. Again, the goal was to cut down the stack to a predetermined number so that a bunch of us could debate the merits of the survivors. The rule was each person got say over a specific stack. If they had a concern, they could call in another judge for help, but it was basically one person’s say and that was that.

Another judge came by and looked at my stack of rejects. “What’s this one doing in here?” he demanded.

I told him it didn’t make the cut and that I had others that were better and that’s about it.

He stormed off in a huff and I heard him loudly talking to the contest coordinator about this. How he knew the adviser and she was a friend of his and how this was CLEARLY a judging error and on and on…

The contest coordinator asked a second judge to give this a second look. The judge concurred with my opinion that, no, it wasn’t horrible, but it didn’t make the cut and that it wasn’t as good as the others she had seen in her stacks (or assumed were in mine).

The guy then flew into a series of histrionics about how unfair this was and how neither of us understood the greatness of this school’s program and on and on. The next day, they had a THIRD judge read it, who was a friend of both the coordinator and the apoplectic judge. He said that it would just be better if we moved it into the “finalists” stack.

Which they did.

The kicker was that after all that, this judge STILL wasn’t satisfied because not only did it deserve finalist status, in his estimation, but it deserved one of the awards we were giving out. That’s when I put my foot down and basically said to the coordinator, “Look, there is no way this thing is a winner. We had TWO judges look at it and it wasn’t even supposed to get this far. Now that we jury-rigged the system to get it this far, you think we should go even a step further?”

After I threatened to name names on all this in public, it remained just a “finalist.”

I haven’t been asked to judge that contest since.

Do you know the way to Inexperienced Bay, Wisconsin? (And why we’re still not fully ready for AI journalism)

I could have sworn this was a joke, but it looks more like Microsoft’s attempt at AI journalism:

(I did the screenshot because I swear this is going away when someone figures it out…)

In case you need translation, the “writer” was referring to the “Green Bay Packers,” apparently assuming the word “green” to be a synonym for “inexperienced” instead of the color/proper noun. It’s also interesting that Jaquan Brisker is apparently playing “security,” as his listed role is “safety.” In football parlance, that’s the player who is the farthest back on the field as a last line of defense against an offensive score, not Paul Blart, Mall Cop.

The “author” also had a few other moments of comedy gold:

Final season, the Bears had the worst document within the league at 3-14, and it earned them the highest decide in April’s draft.

(Translation: Last year, the Bears had the worst record in the league at 3-14, earning them the top pick in the April draft.)

That commerce netted them DJ Moore, who has been one of many recreation’s extra productive large receivers over the previous couple of years…

(Translation: That trade got them DJ Moor, who has been one of the game’s most productive big time receivers…)

Aside from the terrible use of a thesaurus, the “writer” manages to string together some truly godawful sentences that are either nonsense or just run-on messes. The conclusion of the piece captures all that is wrong while giving me a new “phrasing” moment that I’m sure I’ll be using in regular conversation:

However regardless of how a lot Inexperienced Bay and Chicago might battle, their rivalry will at all times be a spark of pleasure for his or her respective fanbases.

EXERCISE TIME: If you’d like your own “spark of pleasure,” dig around on this site (or any other AI disasterbacle of a website) and pick an article for translation. Not only will it help you better understand what’s wrong with AI, but it will also help you sharpen your own writing through word choice and improved clarity.

(h/t to Jason McMahon of the Madison area ink-stained wretches for posting the original.)


Filak’s getting furloughed, so let’s have some fun with this…

This was expected, thanks in large part to the media coverage that explained UW-Oshkosh was going to be $18 million in the hole this year. That said, this wasn’t the best email to get before a holiday weekend:

(If you’d like to see a master course on sterile jargon, enjoy reading Patient Zero here…)

All faculty members are getting some degree of furlough, while the folks who are in the academic staff, administrative staff and other non-tenured spots on the campus await layoffs and other levels of anxiety-provoking announcements.

(Some of us sat through an hour-plus event that included the explanation that to close our $18 million budget deficit, the university would be using the $5 million remaining in its surplus fund, furloughing faculty to save $3 million and then relying on $1 million in cuts. Even my journalism brain realized something was wrong with that math.)

Given my use of humor to deal with darkness, the jokes on this have come fast and furiously through my brain:

  • “Welcome to UW-O, home of the furlough!”
  • “It’s UW-Furlough, where the customer comes… into an empty office at least a few days this month.”
  • “You can’t spell furlough without F-U!”

I also liked the line of “You are not to  be performing any work for UW-Oshkosh” as I’m trying to imagine the enforcement mechanisms that will be employed:

(Sound of SWAT officers kicking down my front door, annoying the dog and scattering the chickens)

Cop: “Filak! Are you GRADING PAPERS? Hands off that laptop now!”

Me: “No! Officer! I swear, I’m just surfing for porn!”

Cop: “Yeah… you BETTER BE!”

In any case, this isn’t a pity party for me but more of an opportunity to go out Irish-Wake style on this thing, so here’s what I’m pitching:


I’ve basically got 11 days to kill, so let’s do something positive with those.  I’m putting out the Bat Signal for anyone out there who is teaching journalism at the high school or college level, anyone running a student media outlet at any level, any group of students who need help in journalism or basically anyone who is looking to take advantage of a journalism professor/blogger chimp with a desire to help you in  any way I can while making a mockery of the system.

I am ready, willing and able to do pretty much anything you want me to do for your classroom, your newsroom, your student media organization or whatever for one of my 11 furlough days.

  • You want me to hop on a Zoom call and teach a topic? Fine.
  • You want me to drive out to your school and meet with students to do some brainstorming for the next issue of the student publication? Totally cool.
  • You want me to come out to your student media conference and teach a dozen sessions on stuff that people want/need? I’m there.
  • You need me to go through resumes, cover letters, copies of your student newspaper, last year’s yearbook and your relatively weak “break-up poetry” from sophomore year? Sure… Hey… Let’s do it!

In addition to that, I’m willing to kick in the following things:

  • A blog post about whatever we did, promoting your place and giving the readers a nice bit of information they can use in their own classroom/newsroom/journalistic lair
  • A copy of the latest edition of any of my textbooks. (I’ve got your choice of Media Writing, News Reporting and Writing, Media Editing and Exploring Mass Com, all of which are suitable substitutes for Ambien.)
  • One of my personalized, hand-burned wooden baseball bats for your office or classroom

(I’ve done some pretty cool bats…)


And, if I sell out the tour on all 11 dates, I’m getting T-shirts with your class/team/organization as an official tour stop.

So, what do you need to do to get in on the hustle? Hit me up via the contact page linked here and tell me the following things:

  • Who you are, what you do and where you are located
  • What you want me to do for your class/group/organization
  • When you want this to happen, as apparently I can only take a certain number of furlough days in a certain set of pay periods for reasons past my understanding
  • How you want to do this (in-person, on Zoom, via the Pony Express, whatever)
  • Why you want to do this

Let’s turn a truly stupid thing into something awesome for you and your folks, which I think Is the unofficial motto of this blog.

Blog lines are open. Operators are standing by.


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


How to cover a shooting or other chaotic event as a beginning journalist (A Throwback Thursday Post)

The front page of the Daily Tarheel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, captured the chaos of the active-shooter situation on that campus this week through an amazing “type-attack” approach comprised of text messages sent during the event:

The staff’s efforts on this are commendable, even as the situation that spurred their efforts has become far too common. I realized this when I typed “shooting” into the search engine for the blog and came back with far too many posts on the topic.

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” post, we go to late 2021 and go through a primer on covering shootings and chaos I put together at an educator’s request. As much as I hope it will help folks who need it, I really hope a lot fewer people will need it in the future…


How to cover a shooting or other chaotic event as a beginning journalist

After I ran Thursday’s post on the mass-shooting event in Michigan, a fellow journalism educator posted a note and a request:

I want to get your Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing to read your thoughts on covering shootings.
I teach near Philadelphia, the City if Brotherly Love, that surpassed an annual record of 500 people shot and killed—in 11 months. I am very sad a Temple University student returning from Thanksgiving weekend was shot twice in the chest in broad daylight by a 19-year-old who was trying to carjack him.
Whether shootings are individual or en masse, we must be sensitive to victims and families while seeking answers to curb the killings.
As I’ve said before, if someone asks for something, I will gladly blog about it, so here we go…
I teach crime reporting and breaking news as part of my junior-level reporting class, but I always include a caveat up front:

Reporting on things like shootings, hurricanes, car crashes and other sorts of mayhem doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of guidelines. I can tell you what I’ve done or what I’ve seen, but at the end of the day, how you react to something is entirely your own doing. While we can read press releases and talk about crime, you never know how you’ll react once you’re on the scene of something.

Until you’ve seen a man get pulled out of a thresher or stood 3 feet from a shooting victim’s dead body, you really don’t know how it will impact you in the short term or the long term.

That said, experience has been a pretty good teacher for me, as a crime reporter, a criminal justice editor and a student media adviser, so here is my best advice on how to work a shooting or other chaotic event for the first time.

We’ll look at what to do (or not do) during your reporting phase, your writing phase and your “afterward” phase.



Here are two key pieces of advice when it comes to covering these types of events:

Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.

A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.

Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those efforts conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a shooting or other similar event. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.

You need to understand that the shooter might still be out there, which can be dangerous or deadly for you or other people. Even if the shooter is dead or captured, police are likely still in a state of high tension, looking for other shooters or dangerous devices. You wandering around where you’re not supposed to be can create serious problems for them and you might be mistakenly viewed as a danger to them or others.  Adrenaline and watching too many “journalism movies” can make us feel emboldened to break the rules to get a major scoop.


Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand up against a burning building to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out.

Whatever is going on around you, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.


Use official sources when possible: When we talk about privilege in law, what we are talking about is the right to quote official sources, who are acting in their official capacity, without fear. This generally applies to judges rendering verdicts, congress-folks making proclamations from the floor and probably the pope. In some cases, it also applies to law-enforcement officials and fire folks who are working the scene of what’s going on. Relying on those folks can keep you out of trouble if facts turn out to be less than accurate.

(The law can get squishy here, so it’s always wise to check the rules.)

Even if the law itself isn’t providing you with a shield, interviewing these folks can be better than relying on witnesses or participants when it comes to the big-picture items. Regular folks get rattled when a shooting occurs or a car slams into a wall in front of them. They’re pumping adrenaline and freaking out, so their version of reality isn’t as solid as a crime scene investigator who has seen all this before. Even more, officials tend to have more of the entire picture in hand before they speak, which is beneficial to you as you try to make sense of this.

(Again, this doesn’t mean you won’t get screwed over by the officials at some level, especially if they’re hiding something. However, you can REALLY get screwed over if a regular citizen decides to accuse someone of murder on live air. Yes, that actually happened…)

Engage in empathy during interviews with those involved: Trying to interview someone who is the victim of a shooting, a bystander/would-be victim of a shooting or those who are essentially collateral damage (family, friends etc. of a victim) is a ridiculously difficult proposition.

It can feel ugly and vulture-esque to bother people who just went through a chaotic and traumatic event. In some cases, a reporter’s desire to get the story can get them to push sources for information and exacerbate the trauma. Some publications have lousy editors who lean on reporters to dig into the situation with grace and dignity of frisking a dead body for valuables.

I have had a number of interviews in which I’ve had to approach a family member or friend of someone who just died or was injured in a terrible way. In one case, it was the family of a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by his best friend. In another case, it was the mother of a 17-year-old girl who died after slamming her car into a tree while drunken driving. The first family wanted nothing to do with me; the second talked to me at length. Neither was a pleasant experience.

Empathy and caution go a long way to making this less painful for everyone involved. I tell my students that we’re like waiters at a fancy cocktail party who walk around with hors d’oeuvres on a tray: We offer people something and if they don’t want it, we walk away quickly and politely.

The best example of how to think about this came from Kelly Furnas, a professor of journalism, who was advising student media at Virginia Tech during the 2007 campus shooting. More than 30 people died during an attack in which a student opened fire on campus. Furnas and his staff at the Collegiate Times had to not only cover the story, but eventually write obituaries for each of the fallen.

A quote he gave me years ago still sticks with me:

“The students I talked to were terrified of the fact that they would need to call these families and I said, ‘You don’t assume that these families don’t want to talk.’ That’s a very important thing to these families to tell the story of their son’s or daughter’s lives. That’s a very important thing. A lot of people not only want to do it, but expect to do it.”

He said the students were told to do their best and just give people a chance to speak. If they were outraged by the reporter’s questions, the reporter was to apologize and walk away.

In the end, however, very few people rejected the request for an interview, he said.

Don’t bail out on your duty to report because you are afraid of what people might say. Give them the chance to say no before you do it for them.



Primary Writing Advice

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: When you are working against the clock, trying to break news and pushing back against competitors and social media folks, it can feel like the weight of the world is on you to get SOMETHING out there.

In the olden days, as in before everyone could be online in 3 seconds after they saw something, we could hang on for a bit before having to produce content for public consumption. Broadcasters got the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts to inform folks. Print journalists could wait until press time to get the best version of reality, or update things between editions.

Today, you are live 24-7, so it can feel like you’re always under pressure to convert whatever you gathered into something for the public.

In the case of chaos, you need to balance that urge against your journalistic training to be accurate above all else. Fast and wrong isn’t doing anyone any good.

If you don’t have something you feel is accurate, supported and clear, don’t pump it out there and figure you’ll fix it later. You can always publish something later. Once you toss something out there, you can never really get it back.


Additional Writing Advice

Play it straight: You are likely living through an emotionally turbulent situation, one unlike anything you’ve faced to this point in your career. Your emotions can run the gamut of fear and anxiety to the sense that you’re about to write the Greatest Piece of Journalism Ever ™ so it’s time to shine.

There’s a reason we teach you the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism, namely so that when faced with something completely out of the ordinary, you can rely on your training to do things right. This is one of those times, so don’t overdo anything.

Tell the people what happened and why they care in the most direct way possible. It’s what good pros do:

A 15-year-old opened fire at his Michigan high school Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding eight others, authorities said, in what appears to be the deadliest episode of on-campus violence in more than 18 months.

Don’t start slathering on adverbs. Don’t hype it with opinions. Don’t turn this into a narrative lead that shifts the focus toward “dig my writing” and away from what happened.

Tell people what happened in the most direct and clear way possible, based on what you can prove.

Speaking of which…


Stick to the facts: In the film “And the Band Played On,” researchers at the CDC are trying to pinpoint the cause of a strange malady that is killing primarily gay men. Their quest to identify the AIDS virus as well as its cause and spread had the virus  hunters relying on a simple mantra: “What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” Unless they could hit the “prove” stage, they refused to state something publicly with certainty.

This approach is a good one for anyone covering chaos, especially something that continues to unfold, like an active shooter situation.

If you can stick to the facts and the material provided to you from reliable sources, you can keep your readers informed and avoid spreading misinformation. If you don’t know how many people were shot, don’t guess. Don’t rely on terms like “arguably” to cover over your limited knowledge, saying things like “This is arguably the worst shooting in U.S. history.”

Say only what you can prove at the time, and that also means taking care with how you are stating something.

For example, police can say something like, “The shooter is no longer a threat.”

OK, does that mean he’s been captured? He was killed? He ran out of bullets? Also are we sure the shooter is a “he?” (Make sure in the reporting phase to check these things, as well as other details before publishing.)

Good work on the front end and sticking to what you know on the back end can lead to simple statements like: “Police Chief John Smith said the shooter, a 15-year-old male student at the school, is ‘no longer a threat.’”


Attribute everything you can: One of the key things you should note in the Washington Post lead was the attribution. Even though “authorities said” is vague, the rest of the story was able to fill in specifically who those authorities are and why we should trust them.

I always try to make the point that attributions are like anchor points when you’re climbing a rock formation: You might not need all of them, but it’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. I also note that I’ve never met anyone who has been fired or sued for over-attributing, but more than a few people have ended up on the short end of the stick for under attributing.

When you are writing a story like this, it’s important to look at each statement you type and ask, “Says who?” If the answer is a specific person, include that in the attribution (County Coroner Jill Smith, Police Chief Doug Jones, Superintendent Raul Allegre etc.). If the information is more general, as in you got the same story from multiple people or documents, make that clear as well (Several police officers said the hallway was littered with spent shell casings from an AR-15; Court documents state Principal Helen Carter repeatedly filed reports with the district on this issue; An email chain between the boy’s parents and teachers show that while school officials were worried about his behavior, the parents said ‘Guns are part of his life, so back off.’”)

If you DON’T have a specific source or collective source, where did you get this stuff and how sure are you that it’s right? That’s where people usually screw up, because they assume they know more than they do and they fail to look it up or find a source worthy of attribution.

If you can’t find a source worthy of an attribution, wait until you can before you publish it.


Have someone else read it before it goes out: After you read and reread and reread something again, you can find yourself blind to your work. You also probably cut and pasted a half-dozen things in a half-dozen spots and then undid at least half of that. By the time you think you’re done, you lack any sense of what is actually in there and what you SWEAR you wrote instead.

A fresh set of eyes are a godsend in this kind of situation.

An editor or a colleague who hasn’t read this before will give you a good chance of catching things like if you swapped the name of a victim and the shooter or if you skipped a first reference to a source. It’s something worth doing because you want to make sure you’re right.

My personal stupid thing was that I always got the day wrong for every story I did. For reasons past my understanding, I always wrote that something happened Monday. Didn’t matter what day, week, month or year something happened, I always made it a Monday.

I caught a lot of those on second or third reads, but it was usually up to my editor or a colleague to ask, “Are you sure this happened on Monday?”

Again, you can’t beat a fresh set of eyes.



Never assume you’re done reporting: The thing about chaos is that it doesn’t operate on a schedule. It doesn’t show up as expected or finish up neatly at the end of an hour, like a TV crime drama. You have to make sure you’re frequently checking in to see what’s going on and if you’re still telling people the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Whatever was right as rain at 9 a.m. is completely wrong at 2 p.m.

The arrest that happened last night turned out to be a case of mistaken identity the next morning.

An early body count ends up being much larger or smaller than once was thought.

Assumptions become facts or become worthless as police continue to investigate.

I remember once following up on a story for a fellow reporter who had filed and gone home after her shift was done. The story was about a toddler clinging to life after falling into a creek. The whole story was about hope and prayer and this boy’s will to live. She was a great reporter and a great writer and this was one of those amazing stories she always told.

My job was “just to make sure” if something changed, so about 10:30 p.m., I called the hospital to get an update that might or might not make the paper.

The PR person was kind of half talking to me and half talking to someone nearby when I heard her say, “So… We can tell him then?”

The kid died five minutes earlier when they took him off life support.

I asked about four really bad questions, that ended up having this woman shouting at me something like, “Everything possible was done to save this child’s life!” (which sounds a lot better in print without the anger in her voice). As she’s talking/yelling, I wrote “KID DIED” on a legal pad and held it up for my editor who was across the room.

He saw it and came rushing over as I finished the interview.

“Oh shit,” he told me. “You have four minutes to rewrite the story.”

Long story short, it got done and we got it subbed in for the first edition of the paper. I didn’t get a byline, but I got a hell of an experience and a valuable lesson: Chaos doesn’t operate on your schedule. Make sure you’re constantly checking in.

Engage in self-care activities: One of the easiest things to forget when you’re in the middle of a chaotic event is that you are human and that things do affect you. The job allows you a kind of shield against feeling things or coming to grips with what you’re witnessing at the time.

Don’t kid yourself. You’re taking a beating, whether you know it or not, and you need to heal yourself a bit.

The truth is, you will see things that will gag a maggot, horrors that will haunt you for years and truly inexplicable acts that have you asking “Why?” more times than a 4-year-old after ingesting a pound of sugar. Those things DO leave a scar, whether you want them to or not. They’re there, whether  you realize it or not.

You will need to do some serious self-care activities to keep from sustaining serious damage.

This can be simple decompression things like clearing your mind or coming to grips with things you’ve seen or written. It can be talking through your feelings and emotions with colleagues or looking for things that can help you reset your mind and body.

These things can also include therapy or professional help. Acknowledging and coping with what your work has done to you does not make you weak or soft.

It makes you a human being who wants to take care of their own needs before they can take care of their audience’s.

Three tips to help you think harder about your word choices as a journalist

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re back for the year, applying the new model for the blog with the Wednesday post being about writing and/or reporting. If you missed Mass Com Monday, you can find it here. Please continue to  send suggestions for improvement  or lists of things you need covered here. — VFF)


Students have often told me that when they are writing a story and they hit a lazy patch, a dumb phrase or something else that doesn’t make for good copy, they hear my voice in their heads, barking at them to fix it.

I, too, have a voice like that in my head and it belongs to Cliff Behnke, the former managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Even today, decades since I last saddled up at a terminal in that newsroom, Cliff still scares the hell out of me.

He had the ability to parse words in such a way that made you feel horribly inadequate for not seeing your failings before he did. I can still remember the first experience I had where he did this. I had written a caption for a photo that noted there were “89 different model railroad train layouts” at the expo center.

Cliff made the point that, of course they’re different. Could I imagine if there were 89 of them and they were ALL IDENTICAL? So why bother with “different?”

That kind of insight became a big part of my writing, not just in shedding the word “different” (another one of Cliff’s peeves was “new” as in “They built a new school.” Has anyone ever built an OLD school?), but also in learning to challenge every word I wrote, and more than a few of them that I read. Take this headline from Deadspin for example:

Sexual assault is a horrible, terrible, absolutely no-good thing, so do we need the word “disturbing” to describe the details? I really went through pretty much every iteration of any potential detail I could think of to find one that wouldn’t fit in the realm of disturbing. I came up empty.

The headline could have used any one of a dozen other relatively meaningless words that could draw in a reader. For example, the writer could have gone with “shocking” details that might involve some really weird stuff this idiot tried as compared to the more banal details like he reeked of Polo and drove a Tesla. At least in that case, we wouldn’t have a “new/different” kind of situation here.

With that in mind, here are a couple hints on how to challenge your word choices in journalistic writing:

Addition by subtraction: In the case of “new” or “different” or “disturbing,” you find that the word really doesn’t add anything by being there. No  one would think they built an old school, had 89  identical model railroad layouts or had some fun and exciting details about a sexual assault. Thus, feel free to eliminate the word.  Occasionally, when I challenge a word in this  fashion, I go back to this scene from “A Few Good Men:”

“I felt his life might be in danger…”

“Grave danger?”

“Is there another kind?”

If you lack the internal level of sarcasm to make this work on a daily basis, I’m sure you have a  friend, colleague or definitely a professor of journalism who can help you sharpen that part of your personality.


I do not think that word means what you think it means:  Looking up words is always a good idea,  as not every definition fits the intended meaning. I’m sure one of my students would like to have back about two years of his music reviews in which he kept using “penultimate” to mean “super-extra-ultimate” when it really means “second to last.”

However, I’m even looking at words that people tend to use interchangeably that can add opinion or shift the truth of an issue in an unforeseen way. Consider the words “change” and “improve.”

Both can be true,  but they don’t mean the same thing, even if people involved in a situation kind of wish they did:

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will change the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will improve the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

An improvement always presupposes change. That said, a change CAN be, but isn’t NECESSARILY an improvement. EXAMPLE:

CHANGE 1: Your landlord has installed a set of handrails on your staircase to make it easier and  safer for you to get into the house. 

CHANGE 2: Your landlord has removed the steps from your house and replaced the lawn with a moat full of starving alligators.

Clearly, both change your housing situation, but only one is an improvement.Keep an eye on words that couch reality like “development,” “benefit” and other such things that really need a look to see if they’re really just a “change” kind of thing.


Go back to the Holy Trinity: Most of the reason we get into a jam in writing is because we don’t have that solid noun-verb-object core that makes for the start of a strong sentence. If you can start with those three elements, most sentences will dramatically improve.

Even more, the quality of each element can eliminate the need for those ineffective descriptors that we’ve discussed above.  In the Deadspin headline you get “Details emerge from complaint” as your noun, verb and object elements. “Emerge” makes it sound like something out of a sewer-monster horror movie at best. “Details” couldn’t be more vague if you tried.

Stronger focus on the noun-verb-object structure could really make for a stronger headline:

Texans’ minority owner sexually assaulted women through groping, digital penetration, court complaint states

If that feels too forward, you could go with something a little less active and a little more tame:

Texans’ minority owner accused of sexual assaults, including digital penetration and groping a woman through her underwear

Think about how concrete your noun can be and how vigorous your verb can be. In some cases, if you have to go with a weaker verb, adding clarity and value to the noun and the object can draw the readers into the piece.

A look at the impact of Artificial Intelligence on journalism and education now, and where it might lead in the future

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we’ll kick off the start of the academic year schedule with our “Mass Com Monday” post, geared toward a broader discussion for those folks doing intro classes or those looking for bigger topics to examine. I am apparently at the last university that still has yet to start classes, but since you all are going to work, we go to work on the blog.

If you like this content, style or approach, let me know. If not, let me know that, too, as this is a transition in progress for the blog.– VFF.)

A BRIEF RECAP: Artificial intelligence is nothing new, but its more recent applications in education and journalism have brought the topic to the forefront over the past year or so, when OpenAI released its ChatGPT. The chat bot could craft reasonably decent written copy that could lay waste to the ways in which we once thought of writing as a humans-only skill.

An Atlantic article in December that the ChatGPT and its successors would eliminate one tried-and-true way in which professors tested knowledge and skills, noting succinctly, “The College Essay is Dead.” Others took the new program for a spin in various educational environments, where it did quite well. One writer had it test Harvard’s freshman curriculum, where ChatGPT received a 3.34 GPA. It also passed the bar exam, did well in business school, and even rattled the cages of med schools with its work.

Journalism has some concerns with the AI issue, in that the ability to abuse the English language has long been the sole territory of ink-stained wretches. The Associated Press established some relatively clear guidelines about what it will or won’t allow when it comes to AI, so that should be one more thing students dread popping up on an AP Style test in the future.

In addition, at least a few publications along the Gannett chain have been keeping up with their work with the help of AI:

These briefs have repetition problems, structural issues and generally speaking no real source material to speak of to support any statements of opinion. In other words, we’re looking at about a “B/B-” effort in most intro to sports writing classes. (An Axios report early today noted Gannett’s Columbus Dispatch would be “pausing” this sports program, given reader backlash. No word on if their statement about pausing the program was written by an AI program.)

Given the general freakout about all this, it looks like we’re about six months from this happening…

Or maybe not…


  • IT OPERATES OFF OF WHATEVER IS AVAILABLE: The concept of “garbage in, garbage out” is usually credited to IBM programmer George Fuechsel, who coined the term in the 1960s. Simply put, the computer (or any logic-based system) will do what it’s trained to do with whatever input it receives. If the input is good, the output will be good. If the input is crap, the output will be crap. To this point, ChatGPT and other similar programs have been the beneficiaries of a wide array of high-quality content from a vast group of sources. That might not always be the case and even if it is, ChatGPT might not know the difference.
    One major concern raised here is that ChatGPT doesn’t really distinguish between the work of high-quality sources that have created tomes of knowledge and chuckleheads who run blogs. Another is that, as ChatGPT continues to generate more and more content, it becomes a self-feeding loop, like a snake eating its own tail.
    At the point of its launch, any and all material online was the company’s oyster, because nobody really realized what these folks were doing at the time or how they were doing it. Now that folks are digging in a bit deeper, those open lanes on the information superhighway are likely to become restricted, thanks to copyright issues and the folks who own those copyrights. This leads us to…


  • COPYRIGHT OWNERS TEND TO GET TESTY WHEN PEOPLE STEAL THEIR STUFF: The folks running ChatGPT are already getting their first taste of what the legal battle could look like regarding copyright infringement issues regarding the training and output associated with this program.
    In the simplest of terms, copyright basically says the person who created a work owns the ability to do with that work whatever they see fit. If someone else takes that work and does something with it that you don’t want them to, you can seek some sort of restitution. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying this, but it’s the first week of classes or so and law won’t hit you until mid-semester at the earliest…)
    Several authors have already sued the tech company over the use of their work to help build this thing, as has comedy pro/author Sarah Silverman. The bigger concerns are coming down the road, as a class-action suit in California states that the OpenAI’s data scrapers violated  “terms of service agreements and state and federal privacy and property laws.”  In addition, the New York Times has put a blocker on the ChatGPT webscraper and is “mulling” a lawsuit against the company. (As a good friend used to say, “It ain’t a lawsuit until it’s filed,” but when an organization as big and powerful as the Times publicly ponders something like this, it’s at least a shot across the bow for OpenAI.)
    If this kind of thing continues, it could substantially limit the effectiveness of AI programs like ChatGPT and potentially force OpenAI to start the process over from scratch.


  • CHATGPT IS ONLY AS GOOD AS OUR FAITH IN IT: If you want to see an amazing look at how simply “believing” in something can both rocket something to stardom and crash the hell out of it in a few short months, watch John Oliver’s look at cryptocurrency and then come back here.
    As much as the people building and playing with ChatGPT might not want to believe it, this system fits that same mold: We use it because it does something for us that we think is good, but the minute we figure out that it might not be all that and a bag of chips, our faith in this thing can crater rapidly.
    According to the Washington Post, the “neat new toy” vibe of this thing is already starting to wane. Additionally, the earlier look at what the Columbus Dispatch has done in pulling out of the AI writing gig demonstrates that we’re not on the road to SkyNet quite yet.

DISCUSS AWAY: Consider a few angles for potential discussion about discussion in class from these angles:

    • To what degree have you played around with GPT? What’s your early sense of what it can do and what it can’t?
    • How and why would you or wouldn’t you use ChatGPT?
    • Look back at some of the other “early innovator” elements associated with our media (Napster, Friendster, AskJeeves etc.) and see how each of them either started a revolution or fizzled out. What kind of pattern do you see for ChatGPT based on these previous efforts?
  • LAW:
    • Do copyright issues concern you generally speaking and do you have concerns about them as they relate to the ChatGPT situation?
    • Is there a way to balance the rights of copyright owners with the interests related to developing software like ChatGPT?
    • If these suits eliminate significant sources of quality material from which ChatGPT can draw, how confident would you be in using this kind of program?
    • Given what you’ve seen about how ChatGPT can write essays and even get you through a freshman year at Harvard, how do you feel this could impact your education or the education of others in your peer group?
    • Is it fair to use a program like ChatGPT to do some of your work? If so, what kind and how much?

A police raid on the Marion County Record’s newspaper office is both a violation of the First Amendment and a case study in astounding stupidity

ABC’s story on the raid, along with actual footage of the raid. 

THE LEAD: The entire force of the Marion, Kansas, police department, along with backup from county sheriff’s deputies raided the newsroom of the Marion County Record on Friday, turning this town of 2,000 people into a battleground for the First Amendment:

A search warrant shows police were looking for evidence that a reporter had run an improper computer search to confirm an accurate report that a local business owner applying for a liquor license had lost her driver’s license over a DUI.

The owner and publisher of the Record, Eric Meyer, along with First Amendment advocates and journalism organizations from across the country, have said the raid went too far.

Police seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the newspaper, its reporters and the home of the publisher. Meyer said police injured a reporter’s finger while taking away her cellphone.


THE BASIC BACKGROUND: The newspaper staff and restaurant owner Kari Newell had a bit of a beef when Newell had its journalists removed her establishment during a public meet and greet  with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner.

Shortly after that, the paper received a tip about Newell’s criminal record:

A confidential source contacted the newspaper, Meyer said, and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license. The criminal record could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business.

A reporter with the Marion Record used a state website to verify the information provided by the source. But Meyer suspected the source was relaying information from Newell’s husband, who had filed for divorce. Meyer decided not to publish a story about the information, and he alerted police to the situation.

“We thought we were being set up,” Meyer said.

Police contacted Newell, who alleged the paper had “illegally obtained” information about her, thus leading to the charges against the paper, as well as the raid on the newsroom and multiple private homes.


FIRST-AMENDMENT FALLOUT: The amendment allows for freedom of the press and prohibits governmental interference in the gathering and dissemination of the news, with only a few extreme circumstances warranting this level of aggression.  To put this in perspective, former President Richard Nixon didn’t even stoop to this level against the New York Times in relation to the Pentagon Papers situation, so if you can make Tricky Dick look restrained, your actions are pretty egregious.

More than 30 media organizations signed on to a letter from the Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press, condemning the raid, stating “there appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search—particularly when other investigative steps may have been available—and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches.”

The Marion Police Department is defending its actions via a Facebook post, explaining that, while, yes, in most cases they should use a subpoena, and yes, in most cases, they should be less aggressive and no, they really can’t tell you WHY they did what they did, these extraordinary measures were necessary. Now, stop asking so many questions and go outside and play…


READ THIS NOW: Here’s an interview with the newspaper’s owner, Eric Meyer, via The Handbasket that both explains what happened in the raid as well as some backstory on the paper’s investigation into Police Chief Gideon Cody.

The paper was looking into allegations that Cody retired from his previous post to dodge potential charges of sexual misconduct, which could have led to punishment from that department.


THIS STUPIDITY GOES TO 11: A few random thoughts that explain how truly stupid this situation is…

  • Astounding Level of Stupid, Part I: The paper DIDN’T run anything on Newell, instead turning the tip over to the police. If the paper had ACTUALLY COMMITTED A CRIME, would the staffers have called the cops and made a point of alerting them to it? That has the same internal logic as telling the cop who pulled you over, “Officer, I know I was going a little fast, but it’s only because I need to get this trunkload of heroin to Fat Jimmy’s criminal hideout before 5 p.m.”
  • Astounding Level of Stupid, Part II: After the paper told the police about the situation, the police told Newell about the situation and Newell then complained about the paper at a city council meeting. This prompted the paper to run a story that corrected record about the situation. In short, if Newell had said nothing, nobody would likely have known anything about this entire issue. Now, half the planet knows about Newell and her DUI.
  • Astounding Level of Stupid, Part III: The easiest way to know this situation has no merit is this quote from the chief and follow up paraphrase: “I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Mr. Cody said. He declined to discuss the investigation in detail. Wait… Where have I heard someone say that before? Oh, yeah! Here, and here, and here… Oh, hell, just Google “I will be vindicated” or “The truth will come out” and then look for a follow up story that involves the length of the prison term involved…


DOCTOR OF PAPER HOT TAKE: This is the case of trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer, and it’s not even clear if a fly was there to be killed.

  • Newell alleged that the paper had “illegally obtained” private information about her DUI arrest, offering no real proof that a) the paper did so or b) how she knew how the paper supposedly illegally did anything. If an allegation this flimsy is all it takes to get the police to raid a home or business, I have a list of folks who are in for a bad week…
  • Information is not “private” just because you don’t like people knowing about it. Embarrassing private details CAN be the source of legal wrangling when publicly exposed, but that’s not this. I’m sure Newell isn’t thrilled that people know about her DUI, suspended license and more, but it’s a matter of public record as a criminal offense.
    • Put another way: If I blogged about the various noises and phrases Amy utters while we have sex, that would fit the “private information” area and she could have legal options of a punitive nature. However, the police report related to how she murdered me for disclosing those noises and phrases on the blog would NOT be private, as police reports are public records. Make sense?
  • Information is also fair game for journalists when they receive it through open-record searches, news tips and other similar things the paper is said to have done here. Even IF (big IF) someone else had done something illegal to find information about Newell and then provided it to the newspaper, the law dictates that the paper is free of wrongdoing as long as it didn’t take part in the illegal acts.

More on this will clearly become part of the blog as more on this becomes available…

Three things student journalists can learn from the Texas A&M Kathleen McElroy hiring debacle

THE LEAD: Texas A&M screwed the pooch when it came to the Kathleen McElroy hiring and is now literally paying for it:

Texas A&M University reached a $1 million settlement with a Black journalism professor who said her tenured position offer fell apart after backlash to her work on diversity and equity efforts, the university announced Thursday.

The university’s leadership apologized to Kathleen McElroy for “the way her employment application was handled” in June when the terms of her proposed contract changed dramatically.

The CNN lead is a bit “sanitized,” but things got ugly as hell in the middle of this saga, that led to the resignation of both the interim dean who would have overseen McElroy and the university president, whom we’ve discussed here before. The Texas-based press was more damning, if not long-winded:

The Texas A&M University System reached a $1 million settlement with Kathleen McElroy and made a public admission that then-President M. Katherine Banks derailed the potential journalism director’s hiring after alumni, including a conservative-leaning group called The Rudder Association, voiced concerns about McElroy’s experience in diversity, equity and inclusion.

The system’s Office of General Counsel released a lengthy report about its internal investigation Thursday, following mounting pressure from faculty who fear that outside interference at the university has infringed on their rights in the hiring and promotion process and chilled their speech in the classroom.


BULLETS AND GUNS: Despite saying she was unaware of everything going on, text messages between Banks and interim Dean José Luis Bermúdez proved otherwise. The incongruity between what Banks said publicly and privately proved to be a “smoking gun” in this whole mess:

While then-President M. Katherine Banks told faculty leaders in a public meeting that she did not know of any regressive changes to McElroy’s contract, the texts prove otherwise. They show her and José Luis Bermúdez, then-interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, orchestrating a plan to move the journalist to a multiyear nontenured professorship and multiyear at-will directorship, which they said would be necessary to get her approved by Texas A&M’s Board of Regents.

The texts show the pair drafting a public defense as to why the changes made sense for McElroy’s purposes. Banks told Bermúdez, “If you get this done, you get a bonus.” They also indicated that nothing would be guaranteed for McElroy.

Banks also used a weapons-based analogy in how lucky TAMU got in making McElroy’s job offer so lousy that McElroy had to back out:

Bermúdez later apologized to Banks, who told him not to worry.

“I think we dodged a bullet,” Banks said. “She is an awful person to go to the press before us.”

“A terrible journalist too,” Bermúdez said.”Completely self-serving.”

Bermúdez said McElroy lied in much of her interview with the Tribune, and Banks responded that she had already told A&M’s chancellor that was the case.

“Just think if she had accepted!!! Ugh,” she texted.

When it came to “dodging a bullet,” I think Banks saw herself this way in this situation:

But it was really more like this…


SHORT SUMMARY: McElroy landed relatively well, in that she has a job back where she was, an apology from the people who messed with her and $1 million settlement to boot. One good friend of mine who is a professor down there noted that the bigger concern is how political pressure came to bear on the academic world in this truly terrible way, and she’s right. That needs some serious overhauling, but for a one-person, one-situation thing, this arc has now closed.


KEY LESSONS FOR JOURNALISM STUDENTS: The whole point of the blog is to help you learn something from everything we see or do, so here are three key things journalism students can take with them in analyzing this mess.

DON’T ACCEPT THE PUBLIC NARRATIVE: We’ve said this a dozen different ways on the blog, including “Trust but verify,” and “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out,” but it bears repeating here: When people tell you something, don’t take it at face value until you are satisfied that it is accurate.

The image Banks put out of being as innocent as a newborn kitten when it came to all of this basically fell apart once people started digging into what she knew and when she knew it. It also didn’t help her case that she put a lot of her “less-pleasant opinions” in writing via text messages.

As a reporter, you should listen to what people tell you and you should definitely record and report what they say. That said, you can’t just rely on that alone, or else your less reporter and more stenographer. Take what they say and use other people, documents and resources to challenge what you have learned. In some cases it will support that narrative, but in many others, you’ll find significant deviations from the public script.


SOURCES MATTER: This whole situation started to unravel in early July when the Texas Tribune published the key story about the situation unraveling. Texas has literally scores of outstanding major media outlets in print, broadcast and web that are capable of handling a story like this, but the Tribune got there first.

Why? They had McElroy as a source and a connection:

Disclosure: Kathleen McElroy, Texas A&M University, The New York Times, the Texas A&M University System and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This is in no way a rip on the Tribune, the staff there or anyone else involved in this really important and well-crafted story. It’s merely to point out the fact that a source found the Tribune to be a trustworthy media outlet that would tell a story and do so in a way that gave the source faith. McElroy could have picked up the phone and called the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin-American Statesman, WFAA or a dozen other places and probably been fine. However, when she and the Tribune connected, an appropriate level of trust and understanding between source and media outlet emerged and we all benefited from this symbiosis.

This is why getting to know sources and developing trustworthy relationships with people we cover can matter so much. I don’t know if I’d trust a random reporter who called me about a story, but there are specific reporters I’d gladly help in many ways because I know who they are and we have established a strong relationship over the years. This is the bedrock of good journalism, and it needs to be something we get back to, now that we don’t have to do every interview on Zoom, for fear of COVID.


JOURNALISM HAS INFLUENCE: There are plenty days in this field when it seems like we don’t do a lot or that we don’t matter for much, but stories like this reinforce the value we have as a profession. Had it not been for the media spotlight and subsequent digging, this situation would have likely gone away in a quiet fashion and no one would have really been the wiser.

However, because someone decided to put the public eye on this issue, a number of changes have occurred. (You can argue if those are big enough changes or the right ones, but that’s not the argument I’m going for here…) You had leadership change, you had a report on this issue, you had the exposure of outside influence on this, you had a financial settlement and you had an apology. It might or might not be enough, but it’s more than it would have been, if not for the role of journalism.

You don’t have to overthrow a government or right a social wrong through your student newspaper to have influence. My favorite story was one in which the student newspaper I was advising got wind of the university’s decision to start charging students 10 cents for a cup of ice water at the campus eateries. They reported on the issue and the students made such a stink about it, the admin backed off. You can say it’s just a dime, but it’s another example of local journalism having a direct impact on a situation in favor of its readers.


FINAL SIDE NOTE: During the debacle that was, I wrote an open letter to Dr. McElroy, tongue mostly planted in cheek, telling her to “drop those zeroes” and get with the heroes over here at UWO because everything here was amazingly cool. In the intervening week, we some how managed to make Sam Bankman-Fried look financially well-balanced:

UW-Oshkosh plans to cut about 200 non-faculty staff and administrators this fall, while furloughing others, UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said Thursday, as the university faces an unprecedented $18 million budget shortfall. The cuts amount to about 20% of university employees.

“It is no longer sustainable for us to operate without dramatic reduction in expenses,” Leavitt said in an email to employees.

Long story short, I clearly have the predictive power of Jim Cramer these days, so trust me on the journalism and less so on the future.




An open letter to Kathleen McElroy: Forget about Texas A&M. Come to UW-Oshkosh.

Please consider these words of wisdom… If it would bring you here to UWO, Dr. McElroy, I would gladly perform the entirety of any scene from “Cool as Ice” for you every day, simply for your amusement.


Dear Dr. McElroy,

Even though we have never met, I have been following your situation from afar and find it depressingly untenable. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be recruited, lauded and praised by an institution you love and admire, only to have that place fold up on you like a cheap card table when the wind started blowing in another direction. I also can’t imagine what it’s like now trying to figure out where to go in life: You basically told your previous employer you were leaving, only to now realize you CAN’T leave for this other job.

The interim dean at A&M, who apparently pointed out to you that you are “a Black woman who worked at The New York Times,” (both of which he seemingly considered negatives somehow when he made that statement) has resigned his position in the administration over this cluster-mess.  University President M. Katherine Banks, who professed astonishment and ignorance of all the changes to your position,  has “retired immediately” because the “negative press has become a distraction.” (Right. The PRESS is the problem, not the not-so-thinly-veiled racism, the shameful backpedaling or the generally terrible way the school handled this situation.)

This has to be twice as painful for you, as TAMU is your alma mater and that really seemed to be a driving force for you, based on what I read. (For me, I’d be pretty OK if I went back to one of my degree-granting institutions. The other one? I’d rather you stabbed me in the face with a live cattle prod than send me there for a faculty slot.)

This would be a comedy of errors if it weren’t so sad and tragic.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer you this plea: Drop those zeroes and get with the heroes here at UW-Oshkosh. We would LOVE to have you, and I personally would love to spend as much time learning from you as humanly possible.

Here’s the best case I can offer you for such a career move:

Your governor is treating DEI like it’s an STI, signing a bill that would close all offices at universities that he deemed “anti-white.” He’s also anti-tenure, anti-education and looks like a terrible 1980s televangelist to a really creepy degree.

Our governor is a former state superintendent of schools, who favors public education and improving the lives of school children throughout the state. He also pulled off one of the smoothest line-item veto moves in history, to increase public education spending for the next 400 years.

The person who was going to be your boss at A&M had a history of doing some truly dumb things with student media, including trying to overstep her position and kill the print edition of your amazing student newspaper, The Battalion.  She then rationalized her decision to go against the wishes of pretty much everyone in this situation with the immortal line of “I’m not a professor of journalism, I don’t understand exactly why [print media] is important to the field.”

The person at UWO who would be your boss has been pretty darned good to journalism and student media. When a bunch of little… um… student government people demanded my head as the adviser of the student newspaper, he stepped in and kept the idiots at bay. He was also instrumental in our fundraising drive and even gave money out of his own pocket to help out.

In addition, our offices are in the newest academic building on campus, right down the hall from our African American studies department. “Doc” Simpson is an amazing leader of that department and Dr. Denae Powell is one of the coolest people I know. (If you like to laugh, we enjoy sharing a lot of “guess what a student just said/did” stories as we pass each other’s office on a daily basis.)

We’re a fun, small, collegial bunch and we take care of each other. We don’t silo up into “news” versus “PR” or whatever, and we really do our best to help each other and all of “our kids” that enter the program. Based on what I’ve read, that sounds like it would be right up your alley.

I grant you we aren’t perfect: We get 10 feet of snow every year, it takes a while to learn how to pass  farming equipment on our highways and you can’t breathe within six inches of the Illinois border without being forced to pay a toll. We also have our share of knotheads who treat higher education as if it’s some sort of a Communist plot, which might not sound like much of an improvement over your current situation.

I also grant you that I don’t have fiat power in terms of offering you a job, but I’m a hell of a persistent cuss when it comes to getting important things done, so let’s figure that one out when we get there. I just think you’re too important and valuable to waste on an institution that’s treating you this way.

Feel free to shoot me a note via the contact form here if you’re interested in taking a chance on the Harvard of the Fox Valley.


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

The Six-Year Itch: Welcome to the rebuilt blog

New Design for Dadcooksdinner - DadCooksDinner

Quick story: One October a number of years ago, I was getting ready for the upcoming winter when I realized the snowblower wasn’t really running all that well. Two days after I managed to pull the entire carburetor apart and had it in pieces all over my workbench, we got hit by a freak snowstorm that buried us in about eight inches of slushy crud. Had it not been for the largess of a nice neighbor, I might still be stuck in that driveway.

I mention this because that’s essentially what happened this summer with the blog. The goal was to take the regular month off and then come back with the same general approach to writing and posting as normal. However, the good folks at SAGE had gotten some feedback about this thing needing a refresher. Furthermore, we launched the “Exploring Mass Communication” textbook and they were hoping the blog could do something to cover the topics associated with that book.

So, I figured, “What the hell?” Let’s take this thing apart and put it back together. Of course in the middle of all of that we had more than a few news items that I desperately wanted to cover:

I’m sure there’s more I’m missing here, and I’ll do my best to get to those at some point in the future. But for now, I wanted to do a quick breakdown of what the blog is going to look like going forward:

  • Simplified categories: I rebuilt the categories to avoid associating each topic with a book chapter. That will be particularly helpful, given the redundancies in the categories and the chapters, and the fact I’ll now be juggling three books on this thing.
  • Revamped approach: To try to hit on the key aspects of what people need to know for classes, I wanted to standardize how I approached each day. To that point, we’re going with:
    • MASS COM MONDAY: Meant mostly for the folks using the “Exploring Mass Com” textbook. It’ll touch on a topic that could spark in-class discussion or provide an example of something rooted in the content of the mass com book.
    • WRITING AND REPORTING WEDNESDAY: This is what most folks are used to seeing here, with a look at anything from student media successes, exercises for writing or reporting, help with specific writing and reporting issues and more. This will pair with the “Dynamics” texts (News Writing and Reporting; Media Writing)
    • THROWBACK THURSDAY: Turns out, over six years, I actually did some stuff that was helpful. We’ll bring those things back to the forefront with the goal of updating and advancing them.
  • New(ish) look: I wanted to update the look of the blog, but apparently every other template WordPress uses felt like it was built by the same people who handi-craft the “Love” and “Bliss” wooden signs you see at every art mall. Either that or they focused on visuals. Very few, if any, relied on text. Thus, we just polished the site with a new header, some color changes and other stuff. (Still not sold on the color, but let me know what you think.)

This approach doesn’t mean we’re getting formulaic. If news breaks or someone wants me to cover stuff, that’ll supersede whatever I’m doing. If you want kind of a rank-order of what will get covered and when, here you go:

  1. Anything anyone requests: You send me a “You know what I  could  REALLY use?” email, and it moves to the top of the list.
  2. Breaking news: If it’s current and important and I think  you can use it in  class, I’ll go there, regardless of the scheduled post. If it happens on a non-publishing day, I’ll do it then, too.
  3. The planned post of the day: Mass Com Monday, Writing and Reporting Wednesday, Throwback Thursday.
  4. Some sort of snark I throw together when I’m behind on whatever I’m supposed to be doing or whenever writer’s block hits and I am trying to break through.

So, that’s the old, the new and so what’s up with you. I’ll be posting intermittently over the next month until school starts and the new formula comes into place.

In the mean time, if you have questions or thoughts, just hit me up on the contact page.


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

GONE FISHIN’: Fortunate Son Edition

The weekend started on kind of an auspicious note, when Amy asked for Chinese food. Apparently, our local restaurant got its fortunes sponsored by the crypto-currency exchange, FTX, which collapsed in November amid allegations of financial malfeasance and fraud. Clearly, it’s hard to take advice from a company that has been compared to both Enron and Bernie Madoff, so that was a bit unsettling.

Even with that somewhat odd start and weather that could be described as “mid-November Seattle,” the weekend was a welcome end to my 15th year at UW-Oshkosh. We headed down to Milwaukee to celebrate Mother’s Day with my folks and had a wonderful time filled with food, laughter and fun.

As I sit here reflecting on the last three days and those 15 years, I realized that I really am extremely fortunate.

I get to see my parents on a regular basis and they are both still so vibrant and amazing. Whether it’s holidays or baseball card shows or rummage sale, we just enjoy each others’ company so much, it almost seems magical. When we chose to come home to Wisconsin all that time ago, Amy and I made the decision to give our daughter something we both treasured in our lives: The opportunity to spend more time with grandparents. Zoe has treasured that time and I know my parents have too. It was probably the best decision we’ve ever made.

I’m so lucky to have a wife who knows me like the back of her hand and a kid who still cares what I think, even as she climbs toward adulthood. I’m lucky to have a job I love, students with whom I have bonded and an office that serves as a shrine to way too many bobbleheads. I’m lucky I can enjoy my hobbies and help my wife enjoy hers.

I also know how lucky I am to have educators who trust me and use the books I’ve written. It’s a little weird when I run into people who tell me, “Hey, I’m using your book!” I’m grateful and embarrassed a bit at the same time, and it feels extremely weird to have my last name used as descriptor, as in “Don’t forget to read Filak Chapter 3 for the quiz…”

Without you all, my work is basically a coffee coaster or a shelf filler. I can’t thank you enough for that.

As is the tradition this time of year, the blog is going into hibernation for a bit. If anything crucial happens, I’ll hop back on for a day or two. Otherwise, we resume a weekly summer schedule somewhere around mid-June.

Have a great summer and thanks again.

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