Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving Break

With Thanksgiving coming quite late this year, most students and faculty members I know are grateful it finally arrived. Out here, between early snow and lousy temperatures, we weren’t sure if we should be grateful for a short fall or that maybe winter would come early and then leave early. (Yeah, right)

The blog is taking a break for the week, being thankful for the option to do so.

Enjoy whatever break you get, try to avoid any near-death experiences on Black Friday and get ready for the stretch run this semester when we all get back.



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

THROWBACK THURSDAY: ‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

With students, faculty and staff desperately hanging on for a Thanksgiving break, I thought a small bit of humor might be the tonic we all need right now. Here’s a throwback post that looks at how cliches have found their way into our writing and why we need to kill them. Enjoy!


‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking


The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

South Dakota tells the world it’s on meth (or how to make a fool of your state for less than $500,000)


Sometimes, the jokes just write themselves…

South Dakota wanted to take on its burgeoning methamphetamine problem head on, so it invested heavily both in an attempt to treat addicts and a marketing campaign to let people know the state was serious about addressing the crisis.

Well, at least one of these things might work:

South Dakota is on meth — at least, that’s the message behind a new anti-drug ad campaign so widely mocked that one marketing expert could only laugh before calling it “a colossal blunder.”

The “Meth. We’re On It.” awareness initiative was unveiled Monday by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) to address the state’s methamphetamine crisis. In a news release, officials underscored the importance of combating drug use in a state where twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds reported using meth compared with the national average.

According to news reports, Broadhead Co. out of Minneapolis was responsible for the meth campaign, which cost about $449,000

 The state’s contract with Broadhead, effective until May 31, 2020, states that the contract shouldn’t exceed $1.4 million.

In its proposal, Broadhead says the tagline “I’m on Meth” will create “a movement for all South Dakotans to take an active role in keeping their state a great place to live.”

Right… Because when someone walks up to you and says “I’m on Meth,” the first thing you’re thinking is, “Wow! I want to live near that guy!”

Broadhead has several other campaigns on its website that have kind of that “edgy” feel to them, with many of them related to agriculture:


Given their motto of breaking through with non-status quo ideas, I was left wondering if “Cow Lives Matter” was taken… Then there was this:


I don’t even want to know what that thing is used for, but I now have much more sympathy for cows than I did before I saw this…


I kept imagining this conversation going on at Broadhead when it came to the “meth” campaign:

Rep 1: Hey, remember our #porkplease campaign? I bet we can’t look any dumber with an awkward approach than that!

Rep 2: Hold my beer…

In any case, here are two “teachable moments” to take away from this fiasco:

PARANOIA IS YOUR FRIEND: As we have said time and time again here, paranoia is your best friend when launching any kind of public endeavor. It’s the reason I reread the word “public” every time I write it, just to avoid something like this:


It’s why magazine names should really be considered when you start designing things:


Even if you think, “There’s no way this could be a problem…” just think again:


Or why you need you still need to “consider the fold” when you design pages:


You want to always ask yourself, “How could this thing go wrong?” The first person who said, “Meth? I’m on it!” should have had six people around him/her saying, “Uh… PHRASING!”


OBSERVE FILAK’S FIRST RULE OF HOLES: The rule is simple: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Instead, Gov. Kristi Noem “doubled down” on the meth slogan in media statements after Twitter basically had a good laugh at her state’s expense.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is defending the state’s launch of an anti-drug campaign with the slogan “Meth, we’re on it.”

The tagline drew a mix of criticism and ridicule across Twitter on Monday, but Noem cited the backlash as proof that efforts to raise awareness around South Dakota’s methamphetamine crisis was, in fact, working.

“Meth is IN SD. Twitter can make a joke of it, but when it comes down to it – Meth is a serious problem in SD. We are here to Get. It. OUT,” Noem tweeted Monday night.

She also decided that it was a good thing everyone was now asking if the entire state was on meth:


OK, look, I get that everyone is paying attention to you now, and there’s nothing you can do about it (and you just blew through about half-a-million dollars to turn your state into a laughing stock). And we can argue that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” until the end of time.

However, saying we told everyone “we’re on meth” was a good idea because it “drew attention” is like saying former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford helped people understand the severity of the city’s crack epidemic:


Or trying to combat child sex abuse with the slogan: “Kids, We Feel You.”

Once you realize you’re going to do more harm than good when you continue to insist this really isn’t as bad as people are making it out to be, stop digging.


SLAPPed around: How people with money who dislike your work can make your life miserable (legally)

About a year ago, we talked about the legal triangle that existed between coal magnate Bob Murray, comedian John Oliver and a 7-foot-tall squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter.

The short version of this was that Oliver did a big piece on the coal-mining industry, in which he called out Murray’s company and made fun of the 79-year-old for a variety of things he did and said. Murray filed suit in West Virginia, claiming Oliver defamed him and seeking not only damages (to be specified by the court), but also a permanent injunction barring Oliver from ever broadcasting the piece again. It also sought to eliminate all copies of the “Last Week Tonight” story from public viewing.

A year ago, the state threw out the case against Oliver and HBO, stating that this was satire in some cases and free speech in all cases. (I still think the greatest legal argument came from the amicus brief filed by the West Virginia ACLU that noted, “Anyone Can Legally Say, ‘Eat Shit, Bob.'”) When the court tossed the case, Oliver let his fans know about it in a truly “Last Week Tonight” fashion:

Contrary to the title of that clip, however, Murray hadn’t given up the ship quite yet. He appealed the decision to the state’s supreme court before eventually dropping the case recently. Oliver then finally made good on his 2-year-old promise to tell us “the whole story” about what happened with the suit.

(Normally, I would upload the link to the piece here, but I think my publisher would kill me in this case if I did so. I have been told repeatedly that “students at small religious institutions” read this blog as part of their homework. Let’s just say that the dancing and singing number at the end is “a lot.” Feel free to find it on your own on YouTube.)

Oliver, however, didn’t spend all 25 minutes of the main story on a self-congratulatory Broadway-style number that pushed satire into a completely incredible stratosphere. His main point was about the way in which people with money can engage in ridiculous lawsuits to crush dissent, which is something of serious concern to journalists these days.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, use the legal system as a sword as opposed to a shield. The goal of these, according to the Public Participation Project, is to crush free speech with lawsuits that have no merit:

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

In short, even if you win the point as the target of one of these SLAPP suits, you lose because you go broke. We covered this kind of situation when we talked about the small-town Iowa newspaper that went after a police officer who had been showing waaaaay too much interest in underage girls. The cop sued for libel and lost in a huge way. However, the paper ran up a six-figure debt defending itself and turned to a GoFundMe campaign to try to save itself.

In Oliver’s case, it cost about $200,000 to defend the coal piece and led to a tripling of his libel insurance premiums. And that was BEFORE he ran his giant Broadway number that went even further in talking crap about Bob Murray.

About 30 states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books now, which try to cut this kind of nonsense off at the pass. Although they vary from state to state, the gist of anti-SLAPP laws is that the person being sued can ask the court to view the story in question as being in the public interest (or at least free speech). It then is the plaintiff’s job to show that the suit has merit.

If those folks can’t meet that burden and it becomes clear it’s a SLAPP suit, the case gets tossed. In some cases, the law calls for the plaintiff to cover all legal bills derived from this stupid exercise.

However, not every state has these laws (Murray sued Oliver in West Virginia for precisely that reason) and not all laws are equally helpful to journalists. This makes life a little dicey for you if you want to take a shot at someone who has probably done something wrong but is likely to be extremely litigious.

Every time you ply your trade, you run the risk of being sued, regardless of if you did something wrong or if someone is just being a chucklehead. With that in mind, here are a few things to think about when it comes to SLAPPs:

IT’S NOT A SUIT UNTIL IT’S FILED: My good buddy Fred Vultee used to say this a lot on the copy desk when a story about someone threatening to sue would come across his desk. His point, and it’s a good one, was that anyone can threaten anything. Until paperwork is filed, all this huffing and puffing does is create a lot of wind.

As we pointed out in earlier posts, you shouldn’t panic and try to run away whenever someone threatens you with a suit. Instead, you should see what it is that is upsetting that person, if that concern has merit and if something needs to be done to resolve the concern before it gets too far down the road. If you’re wrong, an anti-SLAPP law isn’t going to help you.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press points out, anti-SLAPP laws aren’t meant to solve every legal problem for journalists. They are just one more tool in your toolbox that can be helpful when a specific situation comes up.

If you’re right, and it become clear this person is just trying to mess with you, then you can start thinking about lawyers, laws and SLAPP stuff.

DOES SOMEONE HAVE YOUR BACK?: When we talked to Alex Crowe of The Great 98 a year or so ago, he found himself in the middle of what could be considered a SLAPP case. He reported on a messy police situation, which included a reference to a drug bust and a cop’s kid. The officer involved threatened to sue unless the station scrubbed its website of all stories involving this.

Although point one really applies here, sometimes, just the threat of a suit is enough to make people up the chain nervous about sticking their necks out for you. In Crowe’s case, the first inclination of the people around him was to back off. He did, however, know that if he could protect himself and the station without draining every resource from the organization, he would still be in decent shape. That’s where the RCFP came into play. The folks there provided him with legal advice, some pro-bono counsel and a chance to push back at the threats. That was enough to put the kabosh on the whole thing.

Organizations vary as do bosses. I’ve worked for people who would step in front of a bus for me. I’ve also worked for people who would not only push me in front of a bus, but would be more than glad to drive it over me a couple times if it kept their keesters out of the fire. This was the determining factor for a lot of what it was that I was doing in terms of fighting with angry sources, disgruntled subjects and other folks who were potentially litigious.

If you know where you stand with the people who might or might not stand with you on a situation, you at least have a sense of how scared you should be going forward. For all of his zany antics, something tells me that Oliver had more than a few conversations with his bosses at HBO about what might happen as a result of going after Murray before he aired the piece.

IS THE JUICE WORTH THE SQUEEZE?: In employing this “Filak-ism,” I’m likely to earn the ire of many old-school news journalists. In the idealized world of news, the goal is to tell the truth, consequences be damned. You HAVE to tell the truth and you MUST push back against powerful forces. In the movies, it always looks like this:

There’s that sense of “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” that brings vigor to journalism and that is trumpeted as “this is why we do what we do.” I’ll never argue that in a perfect world, the bad guys get punished, the truth gets told and Gary Cooper always rides off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.

We don’t live in a perfect world and if you need any proof of that, go look at the approval ratings of journalists these days.

My friend Allison and I used to ask when we would deal with difficult situations or plan those Quixotic efforts, “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” In other words, if everything goes to hell in a speedboat and you don’t end up winning the day and Gary Cooper gets run over by a horse while Grace Kelly runs off with the blacksmith instead, are you OK with that? Was this worth it?

In the case of Crowe’s story, he felt it was worth it and he ran the risk of losing the fight, the ability to do good news and maybe even his job. In the case of the “Spotlight” story, the Boston Globe eventually got the pieces in front of the public and unveiled some of the darkest elements of the powerful force that was the Catholic church.

In the case of John Oliver, well, we got another awesome moment or 12 from Mr. Nutterbutter, so I guess that was good as well.

The point is, if you’re going to take on someone who will likely torture you with legal stuff and drain your piggy bank of every last cent, make sure you feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor. If you don’t, then let it go and be OK with the fact someone is getting away with lousy behavior because of your choices.

The Junk Drawer: An update on the Daily Northwestern apology, the tao of Vin Diesel and an honest look at journalism salaries

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need, so here are a few bits and bites of things that are helpful or at least somewhat amusing:

REASON 283,435,139 I’M NOT A DEAN: In covering the Daily Northwestern apology story earlier this week, we took some liberties in explaining the best and worst ways in which people reacted to the paper’s editorial choices. A good number of folks I knew who were Medill alumni emailed the dean of the school, Charles Whittaker, asking exactly what the heck was going on at Northwestern.

Whittaker was in a tough spot: He didn’t control the paper (as is the case with almost all colleges and universities, despite what many administrators like to think) and yet the students running the place were most likely kids in his program. The paper’s actions reflected poorly on the school, even though the school itself had nothing to do with the paper. People wanted him to say SOMETHING, although anyone who has ever worked in crisis communication knows that rarely do statements in times like this satisfy everyone. (And, in many cases, these statements end up doing the PR equivalent of trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline…)

Whittaker put out a statement that, in my view, covered the bases and nailed the key points. It also did so in a way that didn’t throw anyone under the bus and yet moved the school beyond the hand-wringing point most alumni seemed to be stuck on. In reading it, I found that his points tended to mirror some of the concerns we raised here, but he did it with an eloquence that I couldn’t pull off at the time. This paragraph covered the three unpleasant truths I outlined in the post in a much tighter and with better language:

And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.

Again, this is why I couldn’t be a dean. Well, that and I’d have to wear a tie…


YOU LEARN A LOT ON THE WAY TO 500: In listening to all the people talk about the Daily Northwestern’s position and how they were “much tougher back in the day,” I found myself going back to this Vin Diesel clip from “Knockaround Guys:”

Rarely do the words “Vin Diesel,” “stronger journalism” and “great philosophy” converge in a single sentence, but they all seem to work here. If those previous generations of journalists were tougher, it was because they got started earlier on their 500 fights. It’s the battles, the mistakes and the ability to live through everything that happens that gives you that toughness. That’s how you develop thicker skin, as so many people kept telling the staffers at the DN to do. It’s how you learn to tough out certain things and acquiesce in other situations.

You learn a lot of things on the way to 500, but none more important than this: You will survive and you will get better at fighting.

COME FOR THE ABUSE, STAY FOR THE LOW PAY!: Why journalists do what they do is often beyond explanation. In some cases, we find a calling, like a priest or a rabbi would. In other cases, we see how our skills match up with what news organizations need and we go for it. In many more cases, we realize we stink at math, so we figure this is the best field for us.

However, even if you’re bad at math, you can tell pretty quickly that the salaries of journalists aren’t among the highest in the world. Anecdotes often filled the ears of students who were working their way through college that, hey, you’d be better off working a fry machine at Hardee’s than doing this. Still, getting people to talk about money is really rough, so no true salary database existed in this area.

Some folks in the field wanted to change that with an open access Google spreadsheet and some publicity.

Journalists doing anonymous journalism about journalism, in the shape of Google docs, is a new development in form. And examples like the SMM list definitely bring up ethical implications that should be considered. But in the long run, we would probably all be better off if the salary list sparked a healthy conversation about who is paying whom how much, and for what.

If you want to dig around, feel free to depress yourself here. Also, if you’re living in Kearney, Nebraska or Butte, Montana and you see the six-figure salaries, remember those are mostly in New York where it can cost almost a quarter-million dollars for a parking space.

Still, you can’t beat the hours…

Until next week,


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


The Kids Are All Right: In defense of The Daily Northwestern staff and its apologetic editorial

Before we start this post, does anyone else want to take a shot at the staff of The Daily Northwestern?

In case you’re not sure about hopping on the bandwagon, but you really like piling on, here’s a brief recap of the controversy surrounding the students in Evanston: Jeff Sessions (for reasons past my understanding) spoke on the Northwestern campus about the “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda” last week and was met by protests. As one of the protests got rowdy, two journalists from the DN began doing journalism: Taking photos, interviewing people and so forth. The coverage ran across multiple platforms and showcased what happened.

Shortly thereafter, the student activists admonished the paper for running photos and calling sources (y’know, journalism stuff) because they feared the administration might punish them for their actions and the DN made it easier for the admin to find these folks. In response, the paper ran an editorial, signed by EIC Troy Closson and other members of the paper’s masthead, apologizing for covering the protest and creating “trauma” for the protestors:

One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down.


Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories.

With all of that in mind, anyone else want to kick Closson in the groin on this one? Anybody else want to pony up with a “death knell of journalism” beef? Somebody in the cheap seats want to shit-talk Northwestern because of its rep as one of the best J-schools in the country?

In case you need inspiration, here are a few things that have come through my media feeds in the past 24 hours in response to the eddy:

Did someone hack into the newspapers site and post this as a joke? I am amazed that journalists would post this for real. I will wait to see if something is up before I comment further.

In honor of full disclosure, I asked the same question when this was posted in a Badger journalism alumni chat room. One of the perils of the internet is you get to be kind of a dick really quickly instead of having to wait for the printing press to go through its machinations.

This is ghastly. Where are they getting these ideas from?

Astonishment is fun, but it’s so much more fun when you can blame everything on a generational divide:

This feels like a Gen Z thing to me, an apology characteristic of an
o’er-sensitive generation that doesn’t want to offend anyone. It’s a
neo-manifestation of the “safe space” discussion that we’ve had.

What is happening to collegiate journalism, with Gen Z at the helm, if we are now seeing student journalists backpedaling and apologizing, for reporting on events that transpire within our campus communities and for seeking out the people that they photographed or quoted —- to ensure they got it right?! I honestly cannot believe the times we are in, if this is the new norm… overly sensitive to a FAULT! This is absolutely incredible!

Damned Kids

Veteran journalist and Chicago blogger Robert Feder collected some of the national Twitter outrage, including a couple of my favorites:

Richard A. Harrison:These idiots are literally apologizing for committing journalism. God help us all. . . . It just reflects the sorry state of today’s “journalism.” In fairness to these student journalists, it’s not much of a leap from sanitizing language for political correctness (see, e.g., AP Style Manual) to apologizing for hurting people’s feelings for no apparent reason.

John Aravosis: Dear God. Northwestern University’s student paper just disciplined student journalists for covering a protest of Jeff Sessions on campus. This editorial is a disgusting un-American betrayal of the tenets of journalism. Their sin: Covering a protest and asking for interviews.

Derrick Blakley:The Daily has got it seriously twisted. You don’t ask permission for those involved in news stories whether they want to be covered or not. The protesters decided on their own to disrupt a public event. If they wanted to protect their identities, not be photographed or interviewed, they could and should have stayed home. For the Daily to cowtow to such “grievences” is to flush the basic principles of journalism down the toilet. As a embarassed Medill grad, I now know what slogan The Daily should run under their masthead: “None Dare Call This Journalism.”

Truth be told, I didn’t like the editorial any more than anyone else. I thought that the approach Harvard took to a similar concern was a much better move, and I said so at the time. However, before we go any further on this, let’s layout a few unpleasant truths:

YOUR GENERATION SUCKED, TOO: I despise generational politics because it’s essentially punching down from a position of self-delusion. I often apply the Johnny Sain Theory of Old-Timers Day here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.” So, no, you would not have run this editorial back in your day, but I bet you screwed up in some equally stupid fashion.

I remember hearing rumors of my student newspaper running the headline “VICTORY!” when Saigon fell, as the paper’s staff had been radically anti-Vietnam. I thought THAT was pathologically stupid, as did many of the adults who criticized the paper at the time. The staffers who are now in their mid 60s or older still vacillate between defending the action as “brave” or doing the “You’re too young to understand. You had to be there.” excuse.

OK, well, if that’s the case, try being here in the now as well. Your screw-ups didn’t go viral in 26 seconds, thanks to social media. Your mistakes won’t be found on Google for generations, so every time someone wonders about you, that’s the first thing that pops up. (If we want to find out what stupid crap you did “back in the day,” we’ll need access to bound volumes of crusty newsprint and a respirator to deal with the dust.)

Each of our generations has had its own crosses to bear, and the only one we all seem to have in common is having to deal with people from the previous generation telling us how much better they were at everything than we are.

MISTAKES HAPPEN. FEAR MAKES THEM MULTIPLY: You learn more by screwing things up than by ever doing them right. I believe that and if conversations with former students are any indication, they believe that, too. This is why they never come to me with stories about how they got an A on a paper and that helped them in life. Instead, the tell me about how an error cost them serious points and they never forgot the lesson.

Mistakes happen and seeing what the results of those mistakes are can help you get better at stuff in the future. What doesn’t help is when you’re afraid of making another mistake.

What essentially happened here was that the paper did what it instinctively felt was right: cover the event. People screamed at them that they were wrong and they probably freaked out and got scared. This is normal human behavior. (Things like running toward a fire, asking what caliber gun blew someone’s head off and bothering folks at the scene of a fatal accident takes some practice.) So in their panic, they went the other way and tried to make things OK for THOSE people, succeeding in pissing off OTHER PEOPLE, who now feel they need to apologize to their readers, the alumni of the Almighty Deity School of Journalism and Awesomeness, anyone ever impacted by apologies and the entire field of journalism itself.

So, with all that in mind, I can only imagine how little impetus these students are going to have in ever covering anything ever again, other than local corn roasts and places where people get awards for saving puppies from a fire.

Being afraid sucks and it cuts into productivity. When all you’re thinking is, “Don’t screw up,” you’re not thinking, “Let’s do a good job.” If you put pressure on yourself not to screw up THIS ONE THING, you’ll likely dodge that mistake but make six other worse ones.

It’s best to think of screw ups like this like we do any other wound:

  • It’s going to hurt for a while. How much depends on the severity.
  • You can’t un-hurt yourself. You can only heal.
  • It’s harder for a wound to heal when it is constantly being picked at and reopened.
  • Eventually a scar forms and it reminds you of what happened so you don’t do it again.

BEING A DICK DOESN’T SOLVE ANYTHING: When was the last time someone was a total a-hole to you and it led to a positive result? I’m picking through my memories and I’m having a hard time coming up with a single instance of that in my own life. Even if the person was right, it usually took a long time for me to figure out the lesson associated with that person’s diatribe. Even more, I still usually didn’t take the lesson to heart and all I could remember thinking was: “Yeah, but what a dick…”

One year, we took a group of student journalists to cover a Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. The students were from various small programs and had limited experience covering anything close to this kind of thing. Still, the Twins gave them one-day, full-access press credentials and let them have at it.

The game was a crazy one and even the most veteran journalists were running around like their hair was on fire trying to get stuff done. One of our students was in a pack of reporters around a player, asking questions. The student did what he thought he should have done: Waited until everyone was done and then ask a question when the other reporters left. It turned out to be a faux pas, confusing the player and angering some of the other journalists. Some people did the “damned kids” thing or just rolled their eyes.

Pat Borzi, a journalist who covered decades of sports stuff including pro baseball and the Olympics, took a different tactic. He waited until both of them were off deadline, and in a mostly empty press box. He took the student to the side and explained what the kid did that was wrong and what he should have done. He did it in a stern but fair voice, journalist to journalist. He also talked to me and my fellow adviser about this so we could share it with our group. I greatly admired his approach and I consider him to be a role model for how social learning should happen in journalism.

Had Borzi ripped into the kid in the press box or came up to me and yelled about these damned kids and how they have no business in here, no one would have learned anything and I never would have appreciated his expertise and wisdom.

I would have just left thinking, “What a dick.”

That’s what I thought when I was reading through the Twitter posts, even those whose core ideas (don’t apologize for doing journalism, worry less about what other people think about etc.) I agreed with. And I’m not even the one getting shredded out there.

If you want people to get better at something, treating them poorly for failing to do it right is the least effective way to pull that off.


So, anyone else want to take one last shot at the paper? Last chance… OK.

Now I’ll shut up so you can listen to Closson, as he took to Twitter to talk about this. His thread brings up multiple points, some of which I agree with and others I don’t. However, his closing set does do exactly what I’d want to see out of a leader:


In other words, we’re doing the best we can, we are glad to hear what people say, but if you feel the need to punch down on someone, leave my staff alone and take your best shot at me.

I’d work for someone like that any day.



“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.


THROWBACK THURSDAY: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out…

Mom’s birthday is coming up soon, so in honor of the woman who brought me into this world (and managed to resist every urge to take me out of it when I screwed up), here’s the journalism post on our most revered verification rule: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.

Love you, Mom. (Just ask Dad for verification…)

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out…



The adage in journalism regarding verification is: “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.” The idea is that you need to make sure things are right before you publish them. You also want to verify the source of the information before you get yourself into trouble.

This issue popped up again this week after former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci had exchanged several emails with a person he thought to be former Chief of Staff Reince Prebus. It turns out, the messages came from a prankster, who baited Scaramucci into an “email battle:”

“At no stage have you acted in a way that’s even remotely classy, yet you believe that’s the standard by which everyone should behave towards you?” read the email to Scaramucci from a “” account.

Scaramucci, apparently unaware the email was a hoax, responded with indignation.

“You know what you did. We all do. Even today. But rest assured we were prepared. A Man would apologize,” Scaramucci wrote.

The prankster, now aware that he had deceived the beleaguered Scaramucci, went in for the kill.

“I can’t believe you are questioning my ethics! The so called ‘Mooch’, who can’t even manage his first week in the White House without leaving upset in his wake,” the fake Priebus wrote. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

Scaramucci shot back with a veiled threat to destroy Priebus Shakespearean-style.

“Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello. You are right there. My family is fine by the way and will thrive. I know what you did. No more replies from me,” the actual Scaramucci.

“Othello” is a tragedy in which the main character is tricked into killing his wife Desdemona after his confidante convinces him that she has been unfaithful.

As the article points out, Scaramucci isn’t the first person to be suckered by a prank. Other members of the government had been similarly duped via email. In terms of prank calls, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found himself once speaking with a person pretending to be billionaire David Koch, discussing ways to attack protesters and destroy liberals.   (The prankster told his side of the story on Politico.)

News journalists have also been caught short when it comes to making sure they’re sure about the sources and information they receive. In 2013, KTVU-TV in San Francisco had what it thought was a big scoop on the Asiana Flight 214 crash: The names of the captain and crew. However, the information turned out to be not only a hoax, but an intentionally racist set of names:

Three people were fired and a fourth resigned for health reasons in the wake of this error. In digging into this, it turned out that the NTSB found the source of the names to be a “summer intern” who thought this would be funny. In its own investigation, the station found that nobody asked the source at the NTSB for his name or title. The station issued an apology, as did the NTSB.

It’s easy to laugh at these incidents or to marvel at how dumb somebody was to buy into this stuff. However, we used to say around my house, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” In other words, you could be next.

So here are three simple tips to help you avoid these problems:

  1. Verify, verify, verify: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Look up information on various sites, ask a source for other people who can augment/confirm the information and make sure you feel confident in your content before you publish.
  2. If you aren’t sure, back away: It is always better to be late on something than it is to be wrong. It’s also better to let a random email or a text go without a response than to get sucked in and pay the price later. Some of these are easy, like when a Nigerian Prince promises you untold riches if you would just transfer your bank account number to him. Some are harder: When’s the last time you made sure it was your friend texting you about a “crazy night” and not his mom or dad doing some snooping? We just assume we know the actual source. That can be dangerous, so back off if you’re not sure.
  3. Kick it around the room: One of the best reasons why newsrooms, PR offices and ad agencies exist is to gather collective knowledge in one place. Sure, with technology now, it’s easy for everyone to work “off site” but keeping people in a single physical spot can make it easier to have someone look over your shoulder and see if something you just got “smells right.” Take advantage of other people around you and don’t go at it alone.

4 non-digital things the digital marketing experts at DealerSocket do that would benefit any media professional


Rachel Choy and Kat Pecora of DealerSocket answer questions from students at UW-Oshkosh during a panel session on digital marketing Friday.

Three members of the DealerSocket team visited their alma mater Friday to showcase various elements of the technology they use and the ways in which they apply digital marketing effort for car dealerships throughout the country.

Rachel Choy, Kat Pecora and Wes Lungwitz work at the Oshkosh portion of the company (which used to be known distinctly as DealerFire). The company helps build, oversee and market digital content for automotive dealers all across the country. Their panel presentation, “Digital Content Development and Analytics,” and the subsequent Q and A covered a wide variety of topics ranging from cutting edge SEO techniques to measuring key analytics via up-to-date digital tools.

Between the explanations relating to the impact voice search is having on the industry to the analysis of PPC and CPC, the students who watched were enthralled with the possibilities available to them in the digital marketing realm. As important as those things were, I noticed that underlying the tech talk were several non-digital rudiments that these folks said made their efforts successful.

Here are four takeaways I pulled from their panel that matter a great deal to journalists of all stripes, regardless of if they’re digital geniuses or working with old Commodore 64s:

WRITE FOR THE AUDIENCE: The key distinction between media writing today and media writing of the past comes down to who’s in charge. In the days in which media professionals ran the show and readers had limited outlets, it was about journalists telling an audience what they thought readers should know. Today, the model is exactly the opposite: Readers have more choices than ever before, so it’s more about writing for the readers, based on what they want to know.

The DealerSocket approach is a good one for all writers: Do research about your specific readership, find out what matters to those people and then write about those things. This is often difficult for news journalists, but it can be even more frustrating for clients who want to see direct results. In other words, the people paying the web folks just want to tell the audience, “Buy a car!”

Instead, the staff writes content to make the readers happy and entice Google.

“Content is a really great way for people to find you,” Pecora said. “Oftentimes, you don’t have a lot of content on your website, so you’re going to show up really low on search terms. It’s a very competitive area and a tough market so the best they can do is create content.”

Lungwitz mentioned that content isn’t just about cars, but things people care about, like a post a staffer wrote for a site about trick-or-treat times in a given area. The post wasn’t helpful in selling a car, but it was helpful in drawing people to the site where the dealer sold cars. The staff then monitors things like bounce rate, to see if people just came in for that one thing and left or if they transferred into the site.

As Pecora said, the goal is to develop an audience that wants to hear what you have to say.

“The more Google is seeing your search terms, and your content is meaningful and useful (to the audience), the more Google is going to send people to your website and that will boost your domain authority.”

BECOME DISTINCT: In most cases, the team at DealerSocket starts working with car dealerships at ground zero of their digital build. With that in mind, they have the opportunity to create both the content for a variety of digital platforms and the general persona the company wants to express publicly. The goal is to understand what the client has that no one else has and then communicate that effectively.

“We try to dig something out of them,” Lungwitz said. “‘How are you different?’ We take our cues from journalism. It’s like any of the interviews you’ve done.”

Like most sources in journalism, people tend to have problems talking about themselves or seeing things about themselves that are unique. It’s the goal of good journalists to find ways to access those things and then showcase them to the readers in a valuable way.

“We take a white-glove approach to customer service,” Pecora said. “What does the customer need and what is unique about this customer? We take the time to really find that out and dedicate energy and time to doing what’s right for them. It really pays off.”

Choy noted that she would research her clients to find the things that made them different from other dealers within a geographic area, as well as what made them different from others dealers within the market segment. When she would discuss these things with her clients, they were often impressed with how a person in Wisconsin could know so much about a dealership in California or Texas or North Carolina.

This not only helped her sharpen the focus of the site for her clients, but it also helped with the next main point…

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS: Advertising has moved far from the old “Eat at Joe’s” billboard days, but the underlying premise still remains the same: A client needs people to buy or rent or believe X and the marketing professional has to build content to make that happen. Unfortunately, the line between ad and sale isn’t as direct or as clear as it once was, so trust becomes a huge part of making this relationship work over time.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” one of the folks noted on the panel.

As much as DealerSocket is building custom landing pages for dealers, publishing press releases and managing reputations on social media, the folks who work with the dealers also understand it’s about building trust. To earn this trust, the staff members do their best to explain not only what they are doing with a dealer’s website, but also WHY they are doing it, in the context that makes sense to the clients.

“I explain that your website is like your car and your digital marketing is like the gas,” Choy said. “If you don’t continue to put gas in the car, it’s only going to go so far.”

“Some clients say, ‘I’m not getting enough contact on the website.’ We ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and they say, ‘Well, I have the website!'” Choy added. “Google likes sites that are continually updating… We explain that you need to be proactive to be sure you are the resource for the people… There has to be some kind of proactive action so that your car has gas.”

To some clients, this could sound a lot like a “trust me story,” where a company asks a client to keep throwing money into a hole with the idea that it will eventually lead to something good. Lungwitz said the relationships between the clients and the staff lead to actual trust and eventually the outcomes the dealers want to see. He mentioned this in discussing the trick-or-treat post noted earlier.

“This kind of thing isn’t directly tied to a sale, but we have to explain, ‘Let’s look at these other things,'” Lungwitz said. “It’s lifting all boats, it’s lifting your home page… Organic marketing is the long play. It’s not a direct response plan. It’s building over time.”

Just like most good relationships.

NEVER STOP LEARNING: The field of digital marketing, like most parts of journalism, is continually changing. What made sense six months ago might not make sense now. What works in one part of the country or with one brand might fail elsewhere.

As was the case with most panels involving professionals and students, the students asked for tips and hints on how to get a job and become proficient in this area of the field. Lungwitz had the answer that professors dream about when we hear that question:

“You try to further your knowledge every chance you get,” he said. “I read a lot of social media and SEO blogs. We get certification (on digital media tools) each year and we have to continue that.”

In other words, you should never stop learning.


The Junk Drawer: Leads that break the rules, Cocaine for Kids and more…

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need, so let’s enjoy a few of the more awkward moments sent in by the hivemind and other friends out there:


One of the rules I’ve emphasized to writers about leads is to not start them with a time element, like, “On Monday, the Board of Regents raised tuition 35 percent…” The point I try to make is that if the most important thing you want to tell me in the most important sentence of your story is WHEN something happened, you probably don’t have much of a story to tell.

Here’s a clear exception to that rule in a piece the NY Times ran about a mass exodus at Deadspin:

On Monday, the journalists at the freewheeling website Deadspin were instructed by its owners to stick to sports. On Tuesday, the site’s interim editor in chief, Barry Petchesky, was fired for refusing to obey that order. On Wednesday many longtime staff members quit in protest, hurling Deadspin into chaos.

It’s a multi-sentence lead in which every sentence starts with a time element. Here are a few reasons why it works:

  • The writer establishes a pattern of cadence, relying on the repetition of the time element to keep the attention of the readers.
  • The rapid-fire series of events that occurred in a 72-hour period lends itself to pressing the issue of time in the lead.
  • The writer doesn’t overdo it. The old “rule of threes” applies well here, in that things that occur in threes tend to keep our attention and are “mentally pleasant” for audience members. Had this gone on for a few more sentences, the technique would have failed.

As we have noted about all the rules of the game: Once you know them well enough, and you earn the fungus on your shower shoes, you can break them if you do so for the right reason. Go ahead and try something different, but if it doesn’t work, feel free to go back to an inverted pyramid style lead.



A friend sent me this headline, noting the word choice and the bad head break:

College Blow

For those of you tea-totalers out there, “blow” is an oft-used euphemism for cocaine. Even given the liberal reputation of the West Coasters, I don’t think this is what they meant.

You need to watch those word choices for headlines. In this case, it was a web head, so there was no good reason not to write out a deeper and clearer headline. In print, occasionally, the space allocated to the headline gets you into trouble:


I’ve worried about my mortgage from time to time, but I’m not sure I’d take a bullet in exchange for saving some cash. It sounds like how the rich people work in “The Purge” or something.


Rental Shirt

How long do I get to rent this shirt for $3? How many bedrooms does it have?


We already know that commas save lives…


And we know that they can keep you away from promiscuous buccaneers…



But a friend sent me a conundrum of hyphenation necessary to distinguish zombie-apocalypse gourds from vegan tree-rodents:


I’m really hoping it’s the former. I can see the movie posters already…

That’s all for now!


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