THROWBACK THURSDAY: Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

A friend who monitors all sorts of internet activity hit me with a message a day or so ago with the question: “What did you do to your students?” Apparently, he found this fun nugget on one of his favorite sites:

 

I honestly don’t care about the post, but I wished the kid had talked to me about whatever it was that was bugging them. I think in a lot of way that’s much more productive than stewing in silence.

With that in mind for today’s Throwback Thursday, I bring you the post that tries to cut off the student insanity at the pass:

 

Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

Kermit Freaking Out GIF - Kermit FreakingOut Crazy GIFs

(“Professor… I’m kind of freaking out just a little bit right now…”)

Around this time of year, I’m getting four distinct types of panicked contact from students, and it usually breaks down along the “year in school” divides:

  • SENIORS: “I’m sorry I’m bothering you…” followed by concerns about everything from graduation to a class assignment to how to find a job.
  • JUNIORS: “I don’t know what I’m doing with (ASSIGNMENT) and I don’t know why I have to do this… I’m going into (FILL IN FIELD WHERE THEY WILL TOTALLY NEED THIS BUT THEY DON’T KNOW IT YET).”
  • SOPHOMORES: “I’ve always been told I’m a great writer, but I’m not doing really well in your class and I’m worried I’m going into the wrong field.”
  • FRESHMEN: “I’m really worried about my grade in this class…”

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, these questions show up with predictable levels of certainty each year about now. It would be so much easier if we could just answer all of them, all at once, right up front and let the students get the message clearly.

With that in mind, here are the four things that could answer all of those questions, in advance, and make all of our lives easier:

YOU ARE NEVER A BOTHER WHEN YOU ARE ASKING FOR HELP: I wish I had a dollar for every email, phone call, D2L message or personal interaction I had with a student that began with them saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”

I’d buy the Cleveland baseball team and stock the thing with every decent player in the league.

I think that students worry about bothering us because they’re trained to think that we’re really important or that whatever we’re doing is more important than they are. The truth is, for most of us, anyway, we really enjoy working with them to make their work better. We also enjoy helping them get to that “light bulb comes on” moment where they figure out whatever had been a struggle for so long. We also enjoy getting to know them as more than a name on a grade sheet.

And, if they don’t believe all of that, here’s one that’s kind of self-serving: The more we help you up front, the better your piece will be in the end and the less time we will spend grading the thing.

In terms of helping you with “life stuff?” Heck, that’s what we LIVE for. It feels great to know that whatever we did in our interactions with you made you feel comfortable enough to ask us for help in some of those big life decisions. Plus, we probably have gone through this stuff before, or at least helped other students go through it, so we know how to succeed at it.

So, show up at office hours. Email us. Just randomly stick your head in the door when you see it’s open.

Trust me. You’re never a bother.

WE HAVE A GOOD REASON FOR WHATEVER WE’RE DOING, SO TRUST US AND PLAY ALONG: At the beginning of each semester, my students tend to think that I’m old, cranky and addled and to be fair, I actually deserve this.

When I was 19, I took a class with a guy who thought he was “hip” even though he was “middle-aged” and he kept referencing his glory days in college days. Finally, I’d kind of had it, so when he said, “Back in (YEAR) when I was a sophomore at Iowa State…” I cut him off with, “Yeah, Steve, back in (YEAR) when I was in third grade…”

That wasn’t very bright, and God’s been punishing me ever since.

How else can you explain my reference to One Direction being met with, “Oh, Dr. Filak! You like the oldies too?”

So, I get it. We’re old, cranky, addled and we probably think that newspapers are going to last forever. We have nothing to teach you and those stupid grammar exercises aren’t going to help, let alone that story about covering the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or whatever story it was we were telling the other day…

Guess what? Most of us still actually know stuff and can help you get where you want to go if you’ll just give it a shot. The key in this field is that there are several bedrock principles that really haven’t changed over time: Be accurate, get to the point, tell people what they need to know and be clear. There are ways to make that happen that you don’t know because you aren’t as old as dirt and haven’t done it so many times you could practically write an armed robbery brief in your sleep.

We have these tools and we know these things because we’ve been around a lot and we’ve done them an awful lot. We’re not trying to torture you with pointless activities because we receive 30 free steaks for every student we piss off. We’re not trying to fill your head with an ideology so we can create an army of drones who will do as we see fit in the world of media. (Hell, I can’t even make the DOG do what I want, and I have access to all the Pupperonis in the world…)

The next time you think we’re being unreasonable, take one of two approaches:

  1. Treat us like you treat your grandfather at Thanksgiving and play along like this is all new and you are totally interested. “No, Grandpa, you didn’t tell me about the time you struck out Babe Ruth in a minor-league game… What was that like?” Then, actually listen and see if there’s something there you might have dismissed the 148 other times you heard the story.
  2. Ask why you have to do this, but do it in a way where you actually want to know the answer, as opposed to the long drawn out “WHHHHHHYYYYYY?!?!” that is usually followed by that “ugghhh” noise you make to show displeasure. If your professor is worth their salt, they’ll have an answer that will help you make sense of this. If not, well… OK… Let’s hope that doesn’t happen…

In most cases, we’ve built the class with a purpose in mind: To make our students better at stuff. Everything builds toward that, whether you see it or not.

YOU WILL NOT BE PERFECT AT THIS, OR ANYTHING ELSE IN LIFE, RIGHT AWAY: The first writing assignment my media-writing class does is one sentence long: A lead rewrite. When I introduce it to them, I tell them, “This is going to take three class periods to complete and you’re probably still going to struggle with it.”

I then get the stares that say, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are? What kind of student takes three class periods to write one frickin’ sentence?”

The answer: All of them.

I watch as they try to wrangle nouns and verbs like they’re grabbing a fistful of Jell-O. I see them write a sentence only to delete the thing one character at a time, stabbing the “delete” button like they’re firing bullets into the screen. I smile when the “I’m a natural writer” kid tells me, “Nailed it” and then realizes when we read it over that it’s missing at least three W’s and the H.

When they finally do get the lead to vaguely function, they often tell me, “This is way harder than I thought. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a journalist.”

Every professor in this profession knows the response to that statement: “It gets easier the more you do it. You just need to practice. You also have to understand it’ll never be perfect.”

I don’t know why students expect to be perfect at things on the first pass. I’m sure I could devolve into some old-guy, get-off-my-lawn, damned-kids-and-their-hippity-hoppity-music tirade if I felt up to it, but it really wouldn’t be accurate. What I do know is that nothing I’ve ever written has been perfect, no matter how much time I poured into it or how long other people have looked at it.

I have the best editorial pit crew in the business at SAGE and we go over everything at least a dozen times and we STILL aren’t perfect. Every edition, I’m rewriting things with the “What the hell is this crap?” thought rolling through my head. Every proof that comes through, we find another “Good grief, that could have been really bad!” mistake.

And we do this for a living.

If there’s one thing I want my students to understand before they leave here, it’s that nothing they ever write will be perfect. Also, nothing they ever do in life will be perfect. It’s admirable to pursue perfection, with the goal of making something as good as it can be for the betterment of society. However, if you let perfection get in the way of the possible or relatively decent, you’re wasting your time and your talent frozen in fear.

Do the best you can each time. It’ll keep getting better.

NO ONE IN THIS FIELD CARES ABOUT YOUR GPA, SO STOP OBSESSING ABOUT IT: Journalism is a “What can you do for me?” field, not a “My college rank was X” field or a “Do you know who my father is?” field. The skills you build and hone, the talents you develop and apply and the general ability to get the job done is what people who hire you will care about.

In almost 25 years of teaching, I have heard of exactly two cases in which a student went to a job interview and someone asked about their GPA. (In one case, I knew the editor and when I called to ask about this, he said, “Yeah, that was stupid. I kind of blanked on what I wanted to ask, so I went there.” The other was from a reporter at a paper who must have been all of 22.5 years old and asked it in the tone of, “Yeah? So what do you bench, bro?”)

The best students I’ve taught and sent into the field were not always the “A” students. In fact, a lot of “C” kids did really well for themselves for a number of reasons:

  1. They got C’s because they were never in class because they were pouring their lives into student media.
  2. They got their butts kicked by an assignment or three and used that to motivate themselves to figure out what went wrong.
  3. They weren’t “test” people, but rather “make it work” people. If you needed a story done in five minutes, those folks could do it. If you wanted a ScanTron test completed, it was like Kryptonite to Superman.

I’m not saying grades aren’t important, nor am I saying that getting an A makes you some kind of Pointdexter. What I am saying is that if you’re sitting outside of my office every day, noting that you’ve calculated your grade in the class down to the .00001 place and if I were to just round it a little, it could get you that A- you need to keep close to a 3.8… Well… You’re obsessing about the bark that’s on a tree and ignoring the fact you’re in a forest.

The one who shall not be named: An effort to keep the focus off mass shooters in media coverage and three reasons why it might not matter

An interesting article published this week in The Fourth Estate looks at the issue of how law enforcement and media have sought to keep mass shooters’ names out of the public eye:

Supporters of not naming perpetrators make the case that the less written, spoken or known about the perpetrators, the better. It also eliminates any incentive for perpetrators to become famous from such horrific acts. Whether this trend of reducing the naming of mass shooters helps reduce mass shootings or perhaps makes them more likely is not something my research can determine.

Mass shootings happen for a host of reasons. Lax gun laws in the U.S. and the lack of mental health services are two of the most discussed reasons. Some say they are unavoidable random events that cannot be stopped.

It is not yet clear how much notoriety is a factor for potential shooters. But we do know that the news media is heeding the call to limit naming perpetrators in mass shootings.

Thomas J. Hrach,  an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis explained this as part of a larger review of his research into the naming of shooters in these cases. While his research has several caveats, he does point out that the media’s naming people who have committed these acts has decreased significantly over the years.

Organizations like “Don’t Name Them” and “No Notoriety” have long pushed for media outlets to limit the name usage associated with mass killers. These and other groups have stated that the naming of these shooters leads to copycat crimes, increased intentions to act among potential shooters and the diminished attention that should be paid to victims.

Research has indicated a “contagion effect” can occur in incidents like these, although Hrach’s study noted that naming the shooter or the volume of coverage has yet to be directly linked to increased incidents. In other words, we don’t entirely know what drives people to do this, but we at least examining to what degree media coverage impacts these situations.

In working through my mass-shooting series a few years back, I’d read a lot of various opinions on these issues and found no real consensus on how best to cover something like this. I also came up with three confounding variables that might make all of this “to name or not to name” discussion moot:

TRENDS OF MASS SHOOTINGS: Trying to come up with a standard for what counts as a “mass shooting” or a “shooting spree” or a “mass killer” makes data almost useless in some cases. That said, whenever an organization applies some base-level look at shooting deaths that occur in bunches to a series of incidents, one thing is clear: we’ve trended up over the past 40-some years.

Mother Jones did one that lists the mass shootings from 1982 to present and we can see that we are getting more mass shootings in the more recent end of the spectrum than we have in the beginning end of the spectrum. What is strange is the degree to which each case gained notoriety, leaving open the possibility of media coverage being a contributing factor.

For example, the Columbine shooting is often part of the larger discussion because it involved two high school students killing their classmates. However, the Mother Jones database lists a similar high school shooting in Springfield, Oregon less than a year earlier. The Sandy Hook shooter’s name and face are burned into the fabric of society while the two shooters in Jonesboro, Arkansas lack that level of fame.

For me, the strange thing is that the increase of shootings has almost made it impossible for me to remember names and incidents, an admission of which I am quite ashamed. I do remember certain names because they involved incidents that hit so close to home: The Sikh temple in my home state, the Virginia Tech situation, the Northern Illinois situation and the Columbine shooting, in part due to a friend’s connection to the area. The others have become nameless.

If Hrach’s research is on the right track, this might be because the media isn’t beating us over the heads with the names as much anymore. Or, it just might be that it’s harder to keep track of every one of these incidents, as they’ve become disturbingly more common than they used to be.

NOT EVERY MEDIA OUTLET PLAYS BY THE SAME RULES: The famous, perhaps apocryphal, story about Babe Ruth bears repeating here. On a train to an away game, a group of reporters is playing cards when a naked Babe Ruth comes running through the train car being chased by a semi-nude woman with a knife. The senior scribe pauses before saying, “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we didn’t just see what we saw.” The story went unreported in the papers and didn’t emerge until years later.

The point is that we don’t have such a limited set of “gates” on information anymore that are ruled by a few gatekeepers. Pretty much any ham-head with a phone and social media account can publish anything at any point. Sure, it’s great if the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN enter into that “gentlemen’s agreement” not to name a shooter, or to limit the identification of that person to X number of times, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

Websites, online broadcasters and social media operations can decide to run or not run whatever they want, with many not having the same level of journalistic training and education as some of the more traditional or established outlets. In many cases, fringe outlets delight in publishing things that these storied legacy media don’t or wouldn’t put out there. And, really, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

PEOPLE ARE NOSY: Humans have an innate curiosity about things that happen around them. When given limited information on a topic, there is a high probability that people will go nose around to find out what they’re missing.

It can be on simple things like when someone says, “I need to tell you three things…” and then only talks about two of them. In my own mind, I’m usually ignoring whatever the heck the second thing is if the conversation about it gets too long because I’m thinking, “OK, what’s the third thing?” It drives me bonkers when a sports announcer says something like, “Jose Ramirez has just become the fourth player in Cleveland history to (DO SOMETHING),” and the announcer doesn’t tell me who were the other three.

It’s also why game shows like “Let’s Make a Deal” were so successful: People were torn between what they knew they had in their hand and whatever mystery was behind Door Number Two.

When it comes to terrible situations like mass shootings, those curiosities emerge as well. I was watching a documentary about a 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre, an event I’d never heard of before. Throughout the documentary, the participants never named the shooter. About half way through, the documentarian noted that he refused to name this person because he wanted to focus on the victims. As much as every element of this film was spellbinding, once it was over, I found myself Googling this event to find out who this guy was and what his problem was.

Withholding information can lead to more interest in a situation than simply laying out everything for the audience. It’s why we preach transparency in public relations as, to quote Ivy Lee, it’s better to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”

I’m sure there’s a balance between pounding the audience over the head with the names of these people and making sure not to tempt the curious. I’m also sure I don’t know where that is, so it might be a while before we figure it out.

 

How to write cover letters for journalism jobs in the age of digital media

As students have been plugging away at internship packets and job applications, one of the hardest things they’ve had to face is how best to write a cover letter. Of the many requests I get each year, “How do I write a cover letter?” is among the top three when it comes to trying to get hired.

Andrew Seaman of LinkedIn (who was also nice enough to pony up some thoughts for the reporting book) recently published a piece for a more general audience that asked the question, “Should you include a cover letter?” He makes some great points, including the one that people seeking a job need to tattoo to a body part they look at a lot: If someone asks for something in a job ad, GIVE IT TO THEM.

(I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the hiring end of a situation in which we asked for something simple three references, and instead I get somewhere between 0-2 or 4-383 references. And these are people with doctorates who want to teach the next generation of critical thinkers and investigative journalists… Good grief.)

I’ve often told students I never met anyone who got a job solely on the merit of their cover letter, but I have met plenty of folks who have been tossed aside because of a lousy one. Even in today’s day and age of digital media, while a cover letter might seem as quaint as a horse and buggy ride to you, it might be a big deal the people you hope will hire you.

To that end, let’s walk through what I consider to be a pretty decent approach that has done at least some good to the students who swear by this process:

OPEN WITH A CONNECTION:

In advertising we talk about engaging an audience to get their attention. In opinion writing, we talk about the need to stimulate interest to hold on to a browsing reader. In all forms of media, we talk about the importance of connecting with the audience. That’s what we want to do right off the blocks with the opening paragraph: Grab the reader by the eyeballs and make a connection.

There are three good ways to connect with people in a situation like this:

  1. Direct connection
  2. Indirect connection
  3. Tangential connection

A direct connection is the best of the bunch and is part of why we all consider networking to be valuable. If you went to a journalism conference and met a recruiter for the Johnson Journal, she might say, “Hey, we have an internship this summer that you might want to consider.” That connection can be helpful in pulling you to the top of the stack, if she remembers you. That’s why you want to start with something like, “It was great to meet you this fall at the ABC Media conference, where we talked about potential internship opportunities. Given what you told me there, I was excited to see you had this internship available and I couldn’t wait to apply.”

An indirect connection tends to be the most common ones we have and usually the ones we tend not to exploit well enough. I’m guessing that any professor in your field gets a goodly number of emails or messages from former students who are now looking to hire an intern or a starting-level employee. The former student trusts the professor and if the professor trusts you, that’s a great “in” you need to tap: “Professor Smith said you were looking for a hard worker to fill your internship position this summer, and he recommended that I send you my résumé.”

A tangential connection is the weakest, but it’s at least showing some level of effort. If you lack any specific “in” with a potential employer, consider telling the employer where you found their advertisement and why you felt compelled to apply for the opening. You could also look for a way to tie your interests to their needs. In doing this you could mention how you covered specific things such as crime or sports and that is what drew you to the company’s open position for a crime reporter or a sports reporter. Look for a way to reach out and explain to the person reviewing résumés, “Hey, I’m interested in you for a good reason!”

PAIR YOUR “HAVES” WITH THEIR “WANTS”

In college, I found myself getting screwed a lot on essay tests because I would “fail to answer the entire question” in my answer. What I realized after getting that scrawled across more than a few blue book tests was that I’d get really into the weeds on one or two parts of the test and manage to skip some mundane element that cost me points.

To prevent this from happening again, I would bring a highlighter into the test and literally go through and highlight every verb and subsequent clause on the test question. When I would answer each one, I’d check it off in pen. It seemed somewhat reductive and maybe even childlike, but then again, so were some of my gen ed courses.

The technique ended up serving me well in developing cover letters over the years because I realized that everyone was writing the same cover letter, in which they just repeated their resume in essay format for every job opening out there. I had accidentally used this method to stumble on the idea that Tim Stephens would explain to me years later: “I don’t care what you have done. I care what you can do for me.”

To make the letters work better for me, I would print out a copy of the job description and start highlighting those verbs again, looking at what these people “wanted” and picking out the ones that I wanted to cover in my letter:

  • Work under deadline pressure
  • Write clean copy
  • Demonstrate proficiency in social media

Then I’d start working on paragraphs that didn’t repeat my resume, but connected my experiences to their requirements in the form of neat little pairs:

“You noted in your position description that you need someone who works well under deadline pressure. As a news reporter at the Campus Crier, I often found myself working on tight deadlines including one case where I got a tip about the university’s president resigning. In less than two hours, I managed to get the story confirmed and written. Even better, I scooped the local paper.”

Not every need will attach itself to one of your great adventures in media, but you should look for those opportunities to show people what you did and how it can be of benefit to them.

At this point, I usually have a student ask, “Wait, you mean I need to write a different cover letter for each job I want? That’s a lot of work!”

True, but consider the following things:

TWEAKING, NOT REBUILDING: You are likely going to be applying for more than one job at a time, but I’m guessing that you’ll be applying in generally the same area, so there will be some kinds of overlap among the job requirements. It’s not like one thing you’ll be looking for will require experience covering criminal justice and the other will require six months as a certified fry cook. It’s more tweaking than rewriting from scratch.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY: Exactly how many job applications are you sending out at one point in time that would make this an arduous task? If you’re literally just throwing a resume at everything that pops up on LinkedIn one day, you might really want to reconsider your application strategy. Also, I’m not sure that your patented “I’m a hard worker line” is going to resonate in a letter that you were literally too lazy to change in order to make it unique to a particular job.

THAT SPECIAL FEELING: You should actually WANT the job you’re going to apply for, which means you’ll want to take the time to make these people feel like you WANT the job. Treating each one of these things like it’s at least a little special will go a long way and show that you actually aren’t just machine-gunning applications out there like Rambo trying to take out an entire platoon.

Think about it this way: Did you ever get or give a “prom-posal?” I had never heard of these things before I had a kid who was in high school and got one. The idea is to make some sort of public showing of your interest in a significant other in hopes of getting that person to go with you to a school dance or other event. (I know. I make it sound so hot…)

If you’re old like me and don’t know what this is, here’s a compilation of ones that apparently worked:

(I prefer these when things went wrong, but hey, I covered the crime beat most of my life. I’m a huge fan of entropy…)

In the ones that worked, it was pitched to one person, with a clear connection to that person, in a very personal way. (The baseball player and the “strike out” theme was nice, as was the dog thing, I must say…)

Now imagine instead if it was just some random dude in school running up to every girl he saw in the hall with a sign that just said, “PROM? yes or no!” Exactly how far do you think that “prom-posal” was going to get? At best, he’s going alone to prom. At worst, he’s now on a registry of some kind.

The point is, you want the letter to work. Doing it faster just to get it done, showing no sense that you value the places to which you are applying and not caring about the results will likely land you in the reject pile.

THE MONEY PARAGRAPH:

After you outline your skills and traits but before you thank the person for considering your application sits the most important couple of sentences in your letter: the money paragraph. At this point, you should have made a good impression and have the person on the other end of the letter thinking that you might be a good fit. It is right here that you want to seal the deal and give the employer something to remember.

Each of us has that “one thing” that we think we’re better at that most of the rest of the people in our field. We pride ourselves on our ability to work through problems, to constantly look for positives in every situation or to smooth over personnel concerns. Whatever that “one thing” is for you, hit it here with some emphasis. The goal is to say to an employer that if she is looking through your application and Candidate X’s application and everything is completely equal to this point, here’s the big reason why you should get the job over that other person:

“Above all else, I constantly look for new ways to reach the audience. I was one of the first reporters on our staff to integrate digital tools like TikTok and Instagram into my work. I knew this was how most people in our audience got the news and now everyone else at our publication uses these tools as well. I will always look for the next best way to connect with the readers and viewers and I think this approach could really boost readership for your organization.”

CLOSING TIME

Finish the letter with a standard closing paragraph, thanking them for their consideration, providing contact information once again (hey, if they’re interested, let’s not waste any time) and signing off.

A nice personal touch is to build a signature into the file. Take a piece of paper and practice your signature until you’re happy with it. Then, get a big blue Sharpie and sign it on a clean sheet of paper. Scan it in (or shoot it if you have the skills) and save it as an image file. You can always embed that into the end of the file in the place of a hand-written signature for digital applications, without losing that nice touch a personal signature provides.

Check it over one more time for spelling and grammar errors. (Always check the name of the person to whom you are sending it, because nothing says, “I’m your best candidate” like misspelling a name right off the bat.) Then, send it off and hope for the best.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: 4 helpful thoughts on finding your way through life

I think I set a record this week for “number of students breaking into tears in my office for reasons that have nothing to do with their grades.” The sheer volume of terrible things befalling my students would stun a team of oxen in its tracks and has me wondering if I’m somehow radioactive.

The one kid that really got to me was the best of the bunch: She’s six weeks from graduation, has worked in student media for quite some time, has a great resume and would be a great hire anywhere she chooses. Her problem is that the places that are hiring for things she’s good at are either just out of her educational or experiential range in many cases. In other cases, they’re not getting back to her or hiring other people.

The frustration for her was palpable, even as she started to cry, because she told me, “I swore to myself I wasn’t going to cry in your office. Dammit…” Once we got past that, it turned out she was not only facing all of these pressures, but also the pressure that comes with being the first in her family to go into this educational level and field. Her parents are in the “You got a job yet?” mode, which only makes sense if you’ve never gotten a job in this field at a point like this.

For her and all the other people who are dealing with anxiety, self-doubt and possibly antsy relatives, here’s a throwback post that I hope provides some solace.

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Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: 4 helpful thoughts on finding your way through life

Scott Cunning, an associate professor of economics at Baylor University, recently laid out his life path and his feelings regarding jumping into grad school right after college as part of a Twitter thread.  He makes a number of points that are good, including the idea that grad school shouldn’t be about inertia or self-doubt, but rather when you know what you want (and that you want grad school). He talks about job choices and the benefits to getting one as well here, and I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read.

The nexus of his thesis is something students should keep in mind: You won’t know what you want to do until you end up running into it. That can make for some pretty high levels of anxiety for students and parents, as well as some really awkward family gatherings where random relatives feel it is their duty in life to say, “So you STILL don’t know what you’re doing yet?” instead of “Nice to see you. Pass the potatoes.”

In hopes of helping you defend your psyche from the chaotic panic and shutting down the naysayers who keep blaming your generation’s downfall on “FaceSpace and those iText things,” here are four things to keep in mind:

 

Everyone in college is lost and that’s just fine: At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students in each of my classes what they want to do with themselves once they get out of school. Some of them have a vague notion, half of an idea or a general sense, and that is about the BEST it gets. Only once in all my time teaching did I ever really have a kid tell me something straight-up honest and it was last semester:

Me: So what do you want to do with your IWM (Interactive Web Management) degree?
Him: Make a ton of money.
Me: How will that work?
Him: I don’t know. I’m gonna figure that out when I graduate.

For the rest of the people in my class, it’s like this: “I want to graduate, get a job, not move into my parents’ basement and not have to answer stupid questions like this one from every relative who runs a business selling wiener dogs out of a mobile home and somehow thinks they’re better than me.” Spoiler alert: That’s the American dream of this generation.

Cunning is right, though, in that you won’t know what you want to do until you do it, which is why they force you to take a boatload of general education requirements in college: They figure you don’t know what you want, so they give you a taste of a bunch of stuff.

Instead of taking those classes with only the edict of “Please, God, not another 8 a.m. on Fridays,” look at classes that might interest you and see where they take you. That’s how you bump into things you might like to do for the rest of your life and find some direction. In the mean time, it’s not a problem to not know.

 

Being good at something doesn’t mean you should do it: The longest-running argument in my life is between my mom and me about what I should have done right out of college. She still believes that I would have made a great speechwriter for politicians, based on my various skill sets. I liked to write and had the ability to turn a phrase fairly easily. I did well in public speaking courses and extracurricular activities, such as debate and forensics. I worked well under pressure and could logically process information quickly. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.

Here’s the counterargument I had for mom: I hate politics.

I spent a lot of time with political figures during college, ranging from student government folks on up through the city and county leaders and found I disliked the majority of them and their attitudes. I never understood the wrangling and the gamesmanship they used to carve up their little portion of the world just a little bit finer. I also hated the arrogance and ego associated with the jobs. Why on Earth would I want to write things for people like this so they could snow under a whole bunch of voters in hopes of furthering their own petty agendas?

The point is, Mom and I were both right in some way. She was right that I had the talent and skill set to do this as a job, and I was right that I’d rather gargle with raw sewage than subject myself to that career path. Thus, the maxim outlined above.

You might have a talent, a skill or some general proclivities that push you into a realm of study or onto a career path, but keep in mind that just because you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should. If you don’t like something, don’t put yourself in a position where you dedicate your life to it.

In this regard, Dad had the better take on this topic: Find something you like doing and you’ll never work a day in your life.

 

You are not a fraud, even though you will feel like one: During my doctoral program, we had a class in which every faculty member in the school could come in and discuss his or her research or offer us advice. Of all the advice I got at that point, a couple stuck with me, including this one from Dr. Stephanie Craft:

A few years into your career, you are going to look around and panic because you think that you are a fraud. You will worry that you aren’t good enough or smart enough or whatever and you figure that it’s only a matter of time before everyone else figures this out, too. You then start counting the days until the entire illusion you’ve built will shatter and you won’t know what to do.

Don’t worry. It’s not true. You are not a fraud. You will be able to push past this.

A few years ago, I read about this concept called “imposter syndrome” that essentially captures this whole notion perfectly. It happens to a lot of people and it’s not something you can necessarily dodge in advance of its arrival. When it hit me, it didn’t matter how much work I had done, how well I had done at that work or what everyone else thought about how awesome I was. All that mattered was that I figured I’d eventually get caught short and revealed as something between a carnival huckster and a guy selling snake oil out of the back of a covered wagon.

The one thing that made the difference was remembering what Dr. Craft told me and realizing her prescience on this fraud fear arriving also made it likely that she was right that I could beat it.

 

Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: If your parents tell you that they knew everything when they were your age or that they had a job or that they knew their destiny, I’ve got two words for you: “Reality Bites.” This movie came out 25 years ago, or roughly around the time many of your parents were finishing up their college careers and looking around for whatever that next stage of life would provide. This movie really captured the post-collegiate zeitgeist better than almost anything else at the time, and it provides you with the perfect time capsule to look at what your parents dealt with.

You have Lelaina, Winona Ryder’s character, who was working as a young assistant producer for a cheesy morning show where the host (John Mahoney) treated her like crap.  When she got fired for perhaps the best on-air prank possible, she tried to find a job in her field, only to realize that she couldn’t get hired anywhere. Her father thought her generation had no work ethic. She craps all over her friend Vickie for offering her a job at The Gap, and falls into the bell jar of trying to find meaning in life via a “psychic partner” phone line. It only gets weirder from there (although the final love connection she makes is really too Hollywood for its own good).

If you strip away that last part, you realize that this generation didn’t know anything either, and I say that as PART OF IT. Sure, she fell in love at the end, which is pretty much what the film industry was selling at that point, but she didn’t have a job, was dead broke, had to use her father’s gas card to pay bills and there was no sense she was figuring it out. (And yes, that’s why reality really does bite.) Still, that generation eventually dug in, figured something out and managed to build a life that produced you.

Whatever they tell you about their origin story, view it through the prism of “Reality Bites” and you’ll probably be closer to reality.

5 reasons a pivot to an Axios writing model might not help improve the readership experience of your student newspaper

(When in doubt, pivot…)

A journalism colleague I hold in high esteem mentioned his frustration with how traditional news formats just weren’t doing the job for his readership:

How I got here.
  • For years, I’ve shown students lots of ways to make articles more snackable, scannable, graphically appealing, etc.
  • I think I’ve failed because it was too much to expect they’d look at every story, evaluate multiple ways of packaging it and decide what to do. It’s soooo easy to just “write it.
And it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
  • When I look at how people read our email newsletters and print newspapers, it’s clear they are not interested in reading ANY paragraphs stacked into a column.

His solution to the problem is to promote the “Axios Approach” to content for his students at his publication.

The Axios method of content dissemination takes several key things into account. At the core is the “smart brevity” dictum we’ve discussed here before. Beyond that, the company uses bullet-pointed articles and news letters to hit on the key “What?” “So What?” and “Now What?” elements of material before moving on to the next story. Deeper digs are available for bigger stories.

Here’s a clipped example from a Mike Allen newsletter:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an Axios NewsShapers interview with Jonathan Swan today that he has “an obligation” to support former President Trump if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024.

  • Asked where he draws his moral red lines, McConnell said, “I’m very comfortable with my moral red line.” (Watch a 3-minute clip.)

Why it matters: This was the first time McConnell was pressed on the contradiction between his Senate floor comments in February 2021 saying Trump was “morally responsible” for Jan. 6 — followed two weeks later by saying he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he were the party’s 2024 nominee.

Not everyone is keen on this or the long-form approach Axios takes, but it can’t hurt to try something to break through the doldrums of blathering text that people are already ignoring. Or as my grandfather used to say, “If it’s already broken, try fixing it. You can’t really break it worse.”

That said, here are five quick reasons why this approach isn’t a Golden Ticket for improved journalism:

WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: Every time a media organization loses reader eyeballs, the answer always seems to be to “pivot” to a new way of putting out the content. This was particularly true of the journalistic shifts of the 1980s, when the “Wall Street Journal” format became popular in writing long-form stories, the 1990s with the “alternative-storytelling-graphics” approach, the 2010s “pivot to video” moves and the 2020s “shift to social” maneuver.

In each case, it met with a minimal amount of success across the board, as some places got some value out of it while others continued to fail.

This leads us to point two…

AXIOS ISN’T REALLY DIFFERENT. IT’S JUST GOOD: What Axios is doing isn’t any different from what good journalists have done for generations:

  1. Tell me what happened.
  2. Tell me why I care as a reader.

The format emphasizes these two elements in a more-direct fashion than other publications, but if you read any decent news lead, you’ll find those things:

The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, 133-115, on Sunday, securing the No. 8 spot for the play-in tournament in the NBA playoffs.

Despite continuing sanctions, Russia’s oil profits continue to stabilize the country’s economy, making a quick end to its war with Ukraine highly unlikely, experts say.

A bald eagle captured in Bay View died of avian flu this weekend, with veterinary experts saying this is likely the first of many such deaths among birds this year.

What distinguishes these leads and the Axios model from the content we grouse about is the failure to hit the target quickly and efficiently. The writers at Axios know what matters to the readers and they quickly draw a big circle around it before moving on.

In short, it’s as much about value as it is about format, if not more. I can take a terrible story one of my students wrote about a meeting and put it in the Axios format:

The Oshkosh Student Association held a meeting  Monday, where they talked about several topics.

      • Can students opt-in for online learning next term? Co-adviser Jean Kwaterski said it’s under discussion.
      • When will election results be available? Kwaterski said students have “until Friday at noon to turn in any violations” of voting protocol before votes will be certified
      • Will mask mandates be lifted? Co-adviser Missy Burgess said we don’t know.

Key Quote: “We will look at the data and make sure that it is good. Another reason is that faculty needs time to prepare for no masks.” -Burgess

Why it matters: OSA is the student government of UW-Oshkosh, which means it represents the students. Student representation is important on any campus.

Next moves: OSA will meet again May 3.

(This is the guts of the story. It only took 21 paragraphs for me to find out that apparently the mask mandate was actually being lifted on a specific date, barring an outbreak.)

The point is, if you can’t write a decent lead that tells me the answer to those original two questions along with some focus on the FOCII elements, you can’t make the news work in Axios format.

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY 101: The reason Axios is successful with its content and with its format is because it knows its audience. As mentioned before, Axios co-founder Jim Vande Hei is a political junkie with a ton of key sources and readers inside the beltway. When he came to UWO to speak as an alumnus, he outlined a lot of the things Axios tries to do, the most important of which is knowing the audience and catering to its needs.

The people reading this stuff already like the content because it’s micro-targeted and niche-specific. If people like the topic and are targeted clearly, they’ll read anything decent. Generalized and generic content doesn’t do the work.

Student media outlets have some of those opportunities (specific demographic range, certain campus interests etc.) but they often fail to reach the readers because they don’t learn enough about the readers to make that work for them.

Every year, I ask my students to define the campus at UWO for me. They always define it in one of two ways:

  1. The most generic way possible (“We’re college students of a regular college age and we are going to school to get a degree…”)
  2. The most self-centered way possible (“Everyone here is JUST LIKE ME!”)

Neither of these things are true, so I force them to find out stuff that nobody else would likely know about UWO’s student body. This is how they started to figure out we had a really strong gymnastics program, more parking than other UW campuses, the tightest geographic density of any Wisconsin campus, a strong ROTC and veterans’ program, a series of majors unavailable elsewhere in the UW system and more.

Every campus has a unique feature that draws in readers. That’s why one campus will run it’s “Party Animal” edition to great fanfare every year while another school has a “Bridal Guide” for its graduating seniors. The key to getting readers is figuring out that niche interest and catering to it.

THE LAW OF THE INSTRUMENT IS A BIGGER PROBLEM: This “law” is often attributed to Abraham Maslow and is best captured in the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As my colleague mentioned initially, his students tend to look at a situation, an incident or a project for some new or innovative ways to tell the story before eventually saying, “Screw it. Let’s just write it.”

There is nothing wrong with “just writing” anything, so long as writing it is the best solution to the problem. Unfortunately, even when that’s not the case, a lot of writers just go back to their favorite tool and use it to the best of their ability.

This isn’t a text-only problem. I remember co-teaching a “converged” class with a veteran broadcaster who thought every story could be told on TV. When I mentioned stories like budget analyses or data-driven pieces, he told me how he’d take video of someone tossing a budget on a table or use close-up shots on fingers turning pages. He was right that the story COULD be told via video, but it wasn’t the BEST way to tell that story.

We had a similar situation at Mizzou, when we hired a graphics expert and suddenly every story needed a box, a chart or some other visual cue. In one case, we wrote a story about an upcoming snowstorm and the graphics guy immediately chimed in with, “You need a box of safe driving tips with that!” My response: “Is this going to be anything more than what 75 other Missourian stories and common sense have told you about not driving like an asshole?” He got offended. The box ran. It was literally what I thought it would be.

The point is,  you can tell stories in alternative formats, but we often gravitate to the tool most familiar to us. We also tend to become enamored with a particular tool if it’s a shiny new toy that we want to take with us on every adventure.

The Axios format might be a great tool for telling certain, specific stories, but not others. I have seen students build amazing graphics that tell stories better than text. I’ve seen video do a job that audio could never do. I’ve also seen the exact opposite of all of these things.

In short, the key in getting the stories told better is to put more tools in the students’ tool boxes and then teaching them how and when to use each one to its optimum level.

YOU CAN’T PIVOT OUT OF CRAPPY CONTENT: The reason most of these things fail is because of the “garbage in, garbage out” truism that journalists don’t want to confront. If you aren’t covering things that matter to people, you can’t improve readership through repackaging those things in a new format.

While I was speaking to a college newsroom, a student asked me if I had any tips on how to make their meeting coverage better. When I asked what kinds of things were happening at those meetings that made them valuable, I got dead silence.

It seems that they covered the meetings because they always covered the meetings, regardless of what was going on at those meetings. My first bit of advice was to stop covering meetings unless they could determine that something important to the readers would be happening at them.

In other words, they could do their meeting coverage in Axios format, audio, video or virtual reality, but it wasn’t going to make people engage with the content.

When all is said and done, I hope the Axios approach does make a difference for the people deciding to make that move. My sense of the matter is, if the underlying stuff is good, the model will move the needle more than a bit. If not, it’ll be one more pivot that won’t get the job done.

Another lesson in how the First Amendment does and doesn’t work: The story of Oberlin College and a bakery accused of racism

(or a few other things, as Oberlin College discovered…)

As we have noted here numerous times, the First Amendment provides U.S. citizens with the right to free speech, not consequence-free speech. A recent appeals court decision in Ohio made that clear when it upheld a multi-million-dollar verdict against Oberlin College:

A private college in northern Ohio has lost its appeal after a lengthy court battle with the owners of a local bakery who accused the administration of perpetuating false allegations of racism against their business.

Now the college could be on the hook for $31 million.

A three-judge panel in Ohio’s 9th District Court of Appeals rejected Oberlin College’s arguments in a 50-page opinion published on Thursday, March 31. In doing so, the appeals court upheld a lower court decision that awarded Gibson’s Bakery $25 million in damages and $6 million in legal fees, the Associated Press reported.

This decision dates back to a 2016 incident in which a bakery employee accused three Black students from Oberlin of attempting to shoplift and use a fake ID. The students later pleaded guilty to various charges related to the incident, but before that, members of the college community protested what they felt to be racist and unfair treatment of the students.

During the protest, the school’s dean of students handed out a flyer that stated, in part: “This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” In addition, the student government at Oberlin passed a resolution stating:

A Black student was chased and assaulted at Gibson’s after being accused of stealing. Several other students, attempting to prevent the assaulted student from receiving further injury, were arrested and held by the Oberlin Police Department. In the midst of all this, Gibson’s employees were never detained and were given preferential treatment by police officers.
Gibson’s has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike.

Oberlin argued that the protest and statements made at it were part of a free-speech exercise and thus protected by the First Amendment. The courts ruled that the students could protest all they wanted, but that’s not the point of the suit. This is where it might be helpful to break down what the First Amendment does and doesn’t do:

It does:

  • Prevent government interference that limits speech. In other words, had the protest been shut down by the cops or the city council, or prohibited from occurring in the first place, the First Amendment rights of the students would have been violated.
  • Allow people to express opinions without fear of governmental retaliation. Simply put, if I want to tell people I dislike the president, or that the food at a restaurant doesn’t thrill me, I have that right.

It does NOT:

  • Protect all forms of speech, including false, defamatory content. The courts have to decide, as they did in this case, to what degree something is stated as a fact or an opinion. “This weather sucks,” is a statement opinion. “The weather forecaster on Channel 3 is a pedophile,” is meant as a statement of fact, and carries with it potentially defamatory content, if untrue.
  • Protect people from consequences from their free-speech activities. If you engage in free speech, you can say whatever you want, but you are held to account for that speech. This is where defamation suits come into play. It’s also why I’m a raving psychotic about fact-checking and attributions in stories.

Oberlin argued the protest, flyer and resolution were opinions, thus protected by the First Amendment. What the court in this case found was that the flyer and the student government resolution were presented in a way that a reasonable person could construe them as being factual. That includes the allegations that an employee assaulted a kid, that the situation was racially motivated and that the bakery had a history of racial profiling/racism. If the school wants to win the case, it has to demonstrate fact-based proof that this stuff has happened.

Although the court didn’t cite the Ollman Test in this case, it still serves as a benchmark for how to determine if something is fact or opinion. Two of the four standards are pretty important here:

Can the statement be proven true or false?

In order for a libel suit to be successful, the plaintiff must demonstrate the material in question is false. If the material is pure opinion, it cannot be proven true or false and thus cannot be libelous. In this case, claims of assault, racism and a history of racial profiling all could be proven or disproved at some level. Oberlin didn’t make any real effort to try to make the case the content was true, the courts found.

What is the common meaning of the words?

Assault, racism and racial profiling all have definitions that could be determined and applied. We do have degrees of assault, but what do people think of when they hear someone was “assaulted?” Probably physical violence that leaves injuries. What about “racism?” That is clearly more wide-ranging and based on a variety of factors, but in holding to the “reasonable person” standard, the court has to make a call. Is failing to say “hello” to an unknown person of another race a reasonable standard? Probably not. Is burning a cross at the home of a person of color going to fit the bill? Heck yeah and then some. Thus, somewhere in the middle of that range is where reasonability is going to come to play and that’s where the court gets to say if the accusations fit the meaning.

In short, the school put itself in jeopardy by failing to fact-check a situation and not considering the ramifications of failing to do so.  The school says it might appeal, but I’d probably put my money on this case being upheld.

That’s just my opinion, based on the facts.

 

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Writing 101: Don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me something. Just say it.

I’ve noticed a lot of weak lead-in copy lately among my students, as they seem to think the paraphrase is there to tell me that they’re going to tell me something in the next paragraph. I hit up a former broadcaster for a broadcast perspective, and she had also noticed a lot of “so and so had this to say” as lead-ins to soundbites.

Today’s throwback tries to push back against that terrible approach to copy with some suggestions for media writers across the board.

 

Writing 101: Don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me something. Just say it.

 

Zoe got pretty excited this weekend because her “favorite TV show” (whatever it is this particular week) was coming out with a second season. The first season, as shows like this one are wont to do, ended with a cliffhanger. The main character overheard her aunt and the school’s vice principal talking about the girl’s dead mother. She then walked out and said to the VP, “How did you know my mother?”

Cut to black, thanks for watching, see you next season (maybe).

This kind of teaser approach can work well in ongoing serial dramas, but it’s a lousy technique for media writing. Your readers want to know what’s going on right away and they don’t want to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” to find key information. Additionally, this approach is a waste of time and space for busy journalists who want to get their job done and move on to the next important story.

We have talked about burying the lead before, so that’s not something worth rehashing. Instead, let’s look at the body of stories for print and broadcast and see how this problem can manifest itself and what we can do to fix it.

PRINT:

In most print stories, we like to operate in paraphrase-quote structure, with the paraphrase introducing the quote and the quote delivering on the promises established in the paraphrase. In the book, we refer to this as the “diamond ring” approach, with the paraphrase serving as the setting and the quote serving as the jewel.

The problem is when your setting doesn’t do its job and instead just tells your readers that you’re going to tell them something:

Mayor Bill Jackson talked about his thoughts on giving firefighters a raise.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The paraphrase talks about the content that is upcoming, but all it really does is tell me that you’re going to tell me something. When you run into a jam like this, you have several options:

Cut the first line of the quote and retool it to make it part of the paraphrase.

Mayor Bill Jackson said although he supports firefighters and their needs, no one in the city is getting a raise this year.

“I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites,” he said.

Find additional valuable information to include in the paraphrase that can still allow the quote to stand on its own.

Mayor Bill Jackson said he has supported raises for firefighters in the past three budgets but he can’t do it this year because the budget won’t allow it.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The main goal is to tell your readers something of value in each and every sentence you provide. If you just tell them that you’re going to tell them something, you’re not doing that.

BROADCAST:

In television and web-based video packages, reporters have to find ways to introduce their soundbites, the broadcast equivalent of quotes, in a way that adds value to the story. These introductory statements are known as lead-ins.

One of more common failings of new broadcasters is to just tell people the soundbite is coming. Here’s some examples from the media-writing book:

Horrible lead-in: In responding to the budget crisis, University System President Nate Craft had this to say:

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Bad lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says a 20 percent loss in revenue would force campuses to cut faculty and staff positions.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Better lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says the budget cuts the governor proposed would substantially weaken all of the campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

In each case you see improvement, although even these lead-in sentences would be a bit long for broadcast. If you feel they are overly long. You can always cut them in half:

Nate Craft is the university system president. He says the budget cuts would weaken campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

 

A footnote toward progress: Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is suing the NFL for racial discrimination. I hope some research I did helps him win.

(A screen grab of the Flores suit and our mention in a footnote.)

After being led down the primrose path of several “sham” interviews, Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed suit against the National Football League, alleging  discriminatory hiring practices. The suit says that teams are essentially paying lip service to the “Rooney Rule,” which requires any team that wants to hire a coach to interview at least one person of color as a candidate.

The rule was supposed to push teams to broaden their hiring pools and increase diversity in the league. Flores’ suit says it literally does the exact opposite, with teams looking for the nearest Black guy to interview before running off to give some unqualified white imbecile a boatload of cash. It takes a lot of courage to call out a juggernaut like the NFL, so there are plenty reasons to applaud this move.

I’m clapping a little extra for a selfish reason: The suit cited some research I did with one of my former master’s students.

Back in my Ball State days, I tended to push my master’s students to a) do a thesis instead of a professional project and b) convince them to try to get it published once they had finished it. In many cases, I failed at both ends of this, mainly because, “That’s way too much work. Besides, nobody’s ever gonna read a research paper I write.”

One person I did manage to convince was Eugenio Mercurio, who came to me with an idea for a study about how Black and white quarterbacks were discussed in pre-draft literature. We worked on getting his thesis done on that topic, and it had some interesting info in there, but not enough to really publish as it stood.

I told him, “Look, this isn’t my field at all, but if you work on the literature end of it, I can really beef up the data analysis and maybe it goes somewhere.” He agreed and we put together a conference paper we called “Roughing the Passer,” a wordplay on the football penalty for personal foul against the quarterback.

The findings were both solid and yet basic: We found that white quarterbacks were stereotyped as having fewer physical skills than Black quarterbacks, but that they made up for it with intelligence, leadership and hard work. Black quarterbacks were stereotyped as being more physically talented than white quarterbacks, primarily due to God-given gifts. Also, the draft lit said they tended to make a lot of dumb mistakes on the field, thus perpetuating the stereotype of race-based intellectual inferiority.

After the conference, we pounded the paper into something we thought would be serviceable. We got some great feedback from the folks at the Howard Journal of Communication, one of the best journals on media and race in the country. After some revising and resubmitting, the paper got published and we were both thrilled. Still, it wasn’t like we wrote Harry Potter or something. We figured six academics would like it, six would hate it and everyone else would ignore it.

After his time at Ball State, Eugenio went on and got a professional job, and I kept Peter Panning my life away at various universities. As such, I’ve become kind of the keeper of the fire on this paper. I’ve gotten a number of emails and calls on this.

In 2016, for example, when the Panthers played the Broncos in the Super Bowl, people started asking for that paper quite a bit. I noticed a number of “Cam vs. Peyton” papers that year, as the narrative played out once again that Manning made it on guts and smarts while Cam just ran around making plays as a “physical specimen.”

About a week ago, I got an email from a master’s student who wanted to interview me about the issues of racial discrimination as they related to the NFL. I told her I am in no way an expert on a topic that big and important, but I’m always happy to talk about the paper itself and what we found. I wondered why she found that paper and asked me about this topic in this way.

Once I did some digging around, I found that Flores’ suit cited the paper. In that portion of the suit, Flores’ attorneys laid out the long, sad history of how the NFL has dragged its feet on anything resembling racial progress. It covered everything from slow integration of teams to the length of time it took to hire the first Black coach in the league. In the middle of all that is our statement about racism at the quarterback position.

I have to admit, that was a weird moment for me. It was like, “Oh man… normal people are now reading this stuff instead of just the same six research nerds who read studies like this. God alone knows what they’re going to think.”

I don’t know how this suit is going to turn out or what Flores will end up with, but at the very least, I now have a good answer when people ask, “Why do you bother doing random research papers?”

MISSING: Verbs and articles. If found, please return to area journalists…

At just the right time in the semester, a classic plea for improved writing showed up in one of my feeds. Journalism and educational expert Deborah Potter does a great job of explaining what is happening to broadcast copy and why we desperately need verbs in it.

Anyone watching television news these days could be forgiven for thinking they’ve accidentally tuned into a strange new game show called “Hide the Verb.” No matter how hard you try, it seems, you just can’t find one.

Remember verbs? They’re the action words that come between subjects and objects, telling what happened and when. Try locating one in this NBC Nightly News script: “Less resilient, local business. Dwight’s concession stand, in the family three generations. Sales this summer off 75 percent.” Not a verb in sight.

What is going on in TV newsrooms? It seems unlikely we’re victims of some vast anti-verb conspiracy that has recruited news writers from coast to coast. Instead, this new news-speak could actually be the result of a misguided attempt to improve broadcast writing by making it more active and immediate. The goal is laudable. The results are laughable.

It’s a great read that points to a real problem we’re seeing in writing. I’ve noticed a similar problem with my text-based students and their aversion to including articles in their sentences. To wit:

“Sturgeon man was injured during a fire at his home Friday.”

“Mayor says the bill will not be approved, despite city council’s efforts.”

I tended to blame a lot of this on texting, given that as more and more of my students spent more and more of their lives typing with their thumbs, I saw this sudden drop off of “A” and “The” and “An” in the sentences they wrote. However, in reading through Potter’s piece, it might just be more “headline-ese” creeping into common writing in an attempt to make things feel snappier.

In any case, I reached out to the educational hivemind I trust for a reality check on this to see if I was the only person noticing this. Clearly, I was not:

You are not alone. The dropping of articles is one of the banes of my existence. I consistently have to get after students in all of my classes, including the copy editing classes, where they ought to know better. I would add the 280-character limit of tweets as a culprit as well as texting.

Yes!! I am seeing it and correct it daily.
yup, I call it “Tweet Speak.”
Omg, I thought it was only me. I’ve come to the conclusion it is because they only read headlines, not leads. When did they stop teaching articles (a/an/the) are necessary to make a complete sentence?
Same here! I had a student tell me recently that proper grammar was a thing of the past, that the younger generation just doesn’t care about rules of writing.

Back when Twitter moved from 140 characters to 280, I argued against it, using my “Fat Pants Theory” of writing. After that ran, I heard back from folks who said, “Look, this will improve writing because we won’t have to shorten sentences or write in headline-speak to get the point across. Well, clearly that’s not the case here, as we find that no matter how much space Twitter gives some folks, they’re going to cut the corners on things that make content readable.

So here are a few hints and tips for ways to reach your students (and I mean the kind of reach that doesn’t involve an Oscar slap) as you explain why complete sentences matter:

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY IS YOUR GOAL: That last comment in that hivemind list made my brain twitch for a couple reasons, not the least of which is this: You’re not writing for yourself.  You’re writing for your audience, many of whom might not be old enough to remember writing in cursive on coal slates, but are at least old enough to still operate in complete sentences. Those people will be expecting you to write in a functional fashion so that you can communicate to them effectively.

Also, grammar is not a fad. You can’t BS your way out of bad writing with comments like, “Ugh… Commas are so 1993….” When you make the decision that you’re going to change the rules of language because you don’t think they matter, what you’re saying is that you know better than everyone else out there and they should come around to your way of thinking. Not exactly audience-centric.

LET’S SAY IT ALOUD: One of the tricks I’ve used to get students to break the “verb-noun” habit they developed at some point in attribution writing is to have them say verb-noun sentences aloud. So, I’ll ask them, “What did you do today?” They answer with basic statements about eating breakfast, going for a run, coming to class and so forth. Then I say those things out loud to them in verb-noun format and have them repeat them:

  • Ate I my breakfast.
  • Six miles ran I.
  • Came to class I did.

Then we do the, “Does that sound like anything you would say? If not, stop doing ‘said Smith.’ If it is, you now must dress like Yoda for class, as you pretty much sound just like him…”

Have the students read these sentences aloud without the articles or verbs in them and see how they sound. When they start sound like “caveman speak,” to quote one of the other hivemind folks, they’ll start to realize how dumb this sounds. Like most things having to do with grammar, I could spend six hours explaining it in some long, complex way and they won’t get it. If I just have the students read something aloud, when their tongue feels like its falling down a flight of stairs, they realize there’s a problem.

KNOW THE RULES BEFORE YOU BREAK THEM: Some of the best writers I have ever read break a ton of grammar and style rules. The reason that they are great is that they know EXACTLY when to break EXACTLY which rule for EXACTLY what purpose. They know the rules like the back of their hand and thus can adhere to them effortlessly, until there’s a reason to zig when the rules zag.

Ignorance of a rule is not an excuse to break it, or at least that’s what the cop that pulled my wife over told us… In any case, knowing the rules is all about understanding why we do what we do and what it does for us as writers. You earn that right, as we’ve explained here before, by being awesome at the basics to the point where you know how and when to excuse yourself from their confines.

I have told my students not only what rules I expect them to follow rigorously, but also WHY those rules matter. I also explain that once they are no longer on “Filak Island,” they can do whatever the hell they want. Until then, the rules apply. In short, show me you know how to amaze me with the rules and then we’ll talk. Otherwise, knock it off.

DEMONSTRATE DISTINCTIONS: As noted earlier, the “WHY” aspect of teaching is usually the one that sticks the best. Telling students, “It’s a rule, so follow it,” has the same feel as when their parents answer a question with, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!”

So, look at a couple examples where distinctions matter like this:

Sheriff’s deputy resigned amid allegations of extortion.

So we’re missing the article on this one. Why does it matter? Well if it’s “A” sheriff’s deputy, this might be a bad situation, but it wouldn’t necessarily undermine the department’s ability to function. If it’s “THE” sheriff’s deputy, you have cut the county’s law enforcement in half. Also, if you had half of the department extorting people, this could be terrifying for everyone in the county, as they had almost nowhere to turn for help.

For a verb example, let’s borrow a fragment from Potter’s piece:

Sales this summer off 75 percent.

Think about how a verb can change the context of this:

Sales this summer “ARE” off 75 percent or Sales this summer “WERE” off 75 percent. In the first version, there’s hope that sales could rebound, while the second example says we’re done and we have no hope.

  • “Sales this summer REMAIN off 75 percent.” (Things were bad and continue to be so.)
  • “Sales this summer FELL off by 75 percent.” (Things suddenly took a turn for the worse.)
  • “Sales this summer EXPECTED TO FALL off by 75 percent. (Prediction for bad stuff.)

And on and on we can go. The point is, our job is to inform people to the best of our ability. Skipping words to sound cooler (or younger, apparently) might seem like a good idea, but if it costs us the ability to connect with the readers, we’ve failed.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: “Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.” A few thoughts on how to deal with corrections.

I had to give one of my best reporting students a failing grade on her midterm, and it killed me to do it.

It was a phenomenal job of reporting and writing, as she conquered “The Midterm from Hell” better than anyone has in a long time. She could have survived a few minor mistakes I found, but then she had a fact error, a misspelled proper noun. That did enough damage to sink her.

I went to talk to her about it and she had no complaints. “That’s on me,” she said. “I just copied and pasted the quote from the email and never thought to look up how to spell the names.”

“Next time, I’ll know better.”

I have to admit, that was a more enlightened view of things than I would have taken at age 19, but it is what I’ve been trying to teach students for the past several decades: The grades don’t matter, but what you learn based on what leads to those grades does.

In honor of that, here’s a throwback Thursday post on learning to forget the mistake but to remember the lesson you learned from it.

“Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.” A few thoughts on how to deal with corrections.

Of all the things you will write over the course of your career, nothing feels worse than writing a correction. Essentially, corrections tell the world, “Hey, remember that thing I told you yesterday that I was so proud I managed to find out and share with everyone? Yeah, I screwed up…” Corrections run the gamut from the amusing ones, like this correction on a drag queen’s presence at an event as well as her act:

PeachesChrist

…to the geeky ones like this look at a quote from “The Simpsons:”

Simpsons

…to the downright embarrassing:

Hooker
(It might just be what the kids are calling it these days… “Hey, you gonna go home or should we um… y’know… fail to stop at a railroad crossing…”)

Perhaps there is nothing worse than having to correct a correction, which happened at one of the papers where I worked. We misspelled the name of the Carrerra soccer club, first by using only one “R” in one of the double-R pairings and then we screwed up the correction by using only one “R” in the other one. When we asked the managing editor if we should run another correction, he told us, “No, you’ve done quite enough damage already.”

Corrections can be painful but they’re worth doing. My worst one involved a guy we thought was dead but turned out not to be, even though he was still teetering on death’s door. The question became: “OK, so we said this guy died yesterday, but he didn’t. What happens if he dies now? How do we write that correction?” Eeesh. The guy lived past press time, so we were at least saved the pain of trying to work through that one, but it still stung.

One of my other problems with corrections (and I’ve been told I’m not alone on this), is the issue of “correction contagion” in my work. I had a handful of corrections at each stop I made as a journalist, but they tended to “bunch up” on me. Thus, after I made my first error and fixed it, I’d be so myopic about not making THAT mistake again, I would make four other stupid mistakes. Fortunately, I had great editors who saved me most of the time, but when they couldn’t hold back my wave of stupidity properly, I ended up with another correction or two in short order.

So, how do you deal with the corrections as a writer? To figure out how to write a solid correction, give the book a read. As for how to mentally deal with this blow to your ego and skill set, that’s a bit tougher.

I found a good piece of advice on one of those chatty billboards outside of an area business or church or something as I was driving around recently:

“Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.”

In other words, don’t obsess about the stupid thing you did, but rather how you came to make that stupid mistake in the first place. Was it a case of thinking you knew something so you failed to check on it? Was it something where you forgot to check back on an evolving situation? Was it time where you didn’t have a lot of time to recheck a fact? Was it that you didn’t stop and think before completing your work? Whatever the underlying factors were for that error, consider those to be the lessons to take with you so you can avoid making that mistake again.

Then, let the mistake go or just let it serve as a reminder of the lesson.