Throwback Thursday: Remembering that first journalism class: “I was scared out of my mind.”

With school starting up for most of us in the next few weeks, it’s looking a lot like another year of masks, rule changes, hybrid courses and other things. We’ve spent a lot of time building contingencies on top of contingencies, only to find that some last-minute administrative change has us going back to the drawing board.

What actually stopped me from having a full-on panic attack about the classes I’m still rewriting or the protocols I’m going to be following was a post someone made on an educators’ Facebook group. It went into how, despite the fact we’re all “totally normal” now, our students (and likely our colleagues) are still damaged and wounded by the past 18 months and counting. One person said he can’t remember seeing so many students just bursting into tears as he has this opening week.

In one case, it was because the zipper on her backpack got stuck and she couldn’t fix it. Something tells me, he noted, that wasn’t why she was crying, but the precipitating factor that finally unleashed her torrent of tears.

I went back to this post because journalism classes in general can be a traumatic experience, even when not accompanied by a pandemic (and a broken backpack) so I’d like to start the year thinking about how to keep the education and reducing the trauma. Also, since the people who ponied up for this are all professionals, I like reminding myself and my fellow educators that we weren’t always perfect at this. Or, as Johnny Sain was known to remark about Old Timers’ Day: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

Enjoy and have a great start to your semester.

Remembering that first journalism class: “I was scared out of my mind.”

I was recently on a panel that discussed student media and self-censorship. Most, if not all, of the people on the panel were former journalists and several people in the audience had made the transition to the field to the classroom. One theme that came up repeatedly was the way in which students “these days” didn’t have SOMETHING about them. It might be drive, it might be curiosity or it might be a skill. In any case, many of the people who spoke recalled that when THEY were students at THAT age, THEY had whatever it was that the students today seemed to lack in their estimation.

Me? I remember my first journalism class where I thought I knew everything. After working on one assignment, I thought I should go back home and work on that mechanic’s apprenticeship at the gas station.

The instructor was a former journalist, who was working on his Ph.D. He always graded in green because he said green was an affirming color. Well, he affirmed the crap out of me in that first assignment. The paper looked like a shamrock patch had thrown up on it. Arrows and lines were zigging and zagging all over the place like John Madden getting overly excited while using a telestrator. I figured I’d never make it in this business.

A few years later, I had a job at a good local paper, I had been publishing stories frequently and I was given the opportunity to teach that same “first journalism class” that the green-pen instructor taught many years earlier. When he found out I was teaching it, he called me to his office and handed me a file folder with one piece of paper in it: It was my first assignment, still green as a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago.

As I read through all that tortured prose, I remember telling him, “Wow. I sucked.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You were just new at this. When you go to teach your class, remember that in most cases, these students are going to be even worse than you were back then. You need to be patient with them and help them be patient with themselves.”

I thought about that moment after the panel. Maybe those folks were really great journalists since birth. Or, maybe the “Johnny Sain Axiom” on Old Timer’s Day applied here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

To get a better perspective on this, I asked the hivemind what the folks there could recall about their first journalism class, as in the first time they had to sit down and write for a course. The answers made me feel a little better about my initial experience and I hope they will give you a sense of hope as you start your semester:

This is from an award-winning journalist and professor who spent more than a decade at the Dallas Morning News. She covered the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas:

The class was full of typewriters. A grizzled old reporter from The Boston Globe taught it. He made us write an obituary on the first day. I got a C. I was scared out of my mind.

Here’s an ode to people who marched to the beat of their own drum from a former Wall Street Journal editor who now works for an Ivy League university as a social sciences writer:

My first journalism instructor in college was a longtime news editor at big metro papers. Along with lots of practical stuff, he taught me that desk editors — and particularly the good ones — tend to march to the beat of their own drummer. He was never on time to class — ever. He told jokes no on else got. He waxed on about obscure figures from his past jobs. But when the lead started flying, he was the guy you wanted in your foxhole. He taught me to appreciate all the weird, talented people newspapers attract.

A longtime photo journalist and college journalism professor had this take away: If your experience with your first journalism course isn’t perfect, don’t give up right away. Take another course or two before you decide that maybe truck-driving school is right for you:

My undergraduate writing Journalism professor was very intimidating. An older guy who had lots of real life experience. I can’t say as I enjoyed the class, but I made it through and went on to be a photojournalist for many years.

As the movie “Bull Durham” teaches us, in the major leagues, everyone can hit a fastball, so you’ll need to work a little harder to be “the best” (It also helps to have a curve ball.)

A former PR professional in the medical field who now teaches all forms of writing noted that her first experience in a journalism class made that concept clear quite quickly:

The professor asked everyone who was “one of the best writers” at their high school to raise their hand. Lots of hands went up. He asked us to look around. “You have competition, now. And not all of you can still be the best. Get used to it.” It was true – I’ve used that line in my classes as well.

The first writing class can be scary as hell for some people and a piece of cake for others. (One member of the hivemind told me that his class was a piece of cake as he was “ the college paper’s editor before I took J101. Doing the work before taking the class made the class pretty easy.” Score one more for getting involved in student media.)

You aren’t going to be the same writer going out of that class as you are coming in. Give yourself a chance to develop and work with the instructor to improve each time you try something. The more you practice, the better you will get.

One last story: One of the toughest women I ever taught was about to graduate and head off to a prestigious job at a top-flight newspaper. She was dogged, determined and relentless in her reporting. She was a disciplined writer and a demanding editor at the student newspaper. For some reason, the students were reminiscing about their first class in journalism and this woman spoke up:

“You know, you scared the shit out of me that first day,” she told me.

“Me? What did I do?”

“I really don’t remember exactly, but I remember just being freaked out of my mind,” she said. “I went home and cried for like two hours. I thought I’d never make it and I thought about changing my major.”

Go figure.

Yik Yak is back: Love it or hate it, this anonymous social media tool has value for journalists

Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that drew heavy criticism for the horrifying crap its users posted, has returned after a four-year hiatus, promising new rules and better behavior:

Before shutting down, Yik Yak was the subject of hate speech and cyberbullying across high school and college campuses.

But with the newly launched app, the owners say they’re committed to taking a strong stance against threats and other abuse.

“On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information,” the company says on its website.

The app had a four-year run, starting in 2013 and closing in 2017, amid diminished use and criticism that it protected awful people and the awful things they said. The new owners have pledged to keep the anonymity the users loved while weeding out the bad actors:

We’re committed to combating bullying and hate speech on the Yik Yak platform by any means necessary.

On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information.

If someone bullies another person, uses hate speech, makes a threat, or in any way seriously violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service, they can be immediately banned from Yik Yak. One strike and you’re out.

I’m not sure how a model that says “Nobody knows who you are, but we can ban you if you misbehave” works, but I’m not a tech dude, so I’ll let that slide and believe it when I see it. Also, if we’ve seen anything over the past eight years, it’s a massive spike in misinformation, cyber-rage and online harassment, so I imagine the folks at Yik Yak will find themselves working like this when it comes to trying to stop the bad actors from getting through:

 

Prior to this reboot, I asked one of my media writing classes if they ever heard of Yik Yak or used it and I probably would have been better off asking them if they ever rode a penny farthing bicycle, given the blank stares I received. Apparently, four years is enough time to completely obliterate market awareness among the 18-24-year-old market.

However, when Yik Yak was at its peak, the staff members at the paper I advise followed it with an almost religious furvor. The paper ran the “Top Five Yaks” of the week on the entertainment page. I wasn’t a fan of the app or its approach to media, and I knew that for every “good” thing we got out of Yik Yak, there were at least a dozen awful things that I couldn’t believe people had the audacity to write. Still, there were moments that gave me hope this thing could work.

With all that said, here are some potential benefits Yik Yak can provide to campus journalists and journalism students with its return:

GEOGRAPHY IS FRONT AND CENTER: When I wrote the first edition of the reporting book, I featured Yik Yak because it touched on the audience element of geography, something few other social media platforms did at that time. While the other apps were trying to expand people’s reach to the farthest reaches of the globe, Yik Yak was keeping its users close to home.

The platform used a 5-mile radius to establish a local community, which was usually enough to capture a college campus and maybe even a few off-campus venues. Whenever someone in that range tossed out a “yak,” everyone in that zone could see it. Those people didn’t have to “follow” someone to see what they were saying or sort the posts into certain streams. This kept people abreast of what was going on all around them.

The benefit of this approach is that your geographic location follows you (or at least it did… We’ll see how this new version shakes out) while still allowing you to have a home base. Thus, you can see what’s going on around you when you visit a friend at another campus, while staying on top of what’s happening back home. It is the digital equivalent of reading a good local newspapers while you’re on vacation.

Geography is often the overlooked audience element, as demographic and psychographic information tend to be both easier to define and more relevant in a digital world. However, this app shows that world nearest to the user can matter a great deal.

 

BREAKING NEWS TIPS AT THE READY: When I groused about the return of Yik Yak on Facebook, one of my former editors reminded me, “That’s how I found out about the ricin kid.” UWO student Kyle Smith was arrested on suspicion of possessing the deadly substance in 2014, a story the Advance-Titan broke at the time. Follow ups that remain online show he eventually pleaded guilty to the crime and received a 40-month prison sentence.

Another said, “That’s how we found out about the dorm fires.” At the time, someone had set fire to multiple pieces of furniture in the laundry room of one of the residence halls. (That Advance-Titan story has somehow managed to disappear into the internet ether as well, but it was a big deal.)

I remembered both of those pieces and they were amazingly good ones, but I had forgotten we got the tips through “yaks.”

In flipping back through a few issues of the paper I kept from those days in the mid 2010s, I realized that Yik Yak alerted us to accidents on campus, police calls to certain buildings, those fires and, of course, the FBI swooping in on “the ricin kid.” Obviously, we did a lot more digging into each of those stories before publishing them, but they each had their genesis in Yik Yak.

To that end, it basically became a digital police scanner (and then some) of sorts for us. When someone “yakked” about something like, “WTF R all the cops doing @ South Scott?” we could run over to that residence hall and figure it out. We also knew that whatever people were yammering about on the app was happening within a bike ride of our office, so we could figure out what was going on and quickly decide if it merited coverage.

 

ANONYMITY DOES PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES: I am fully aware of the dark side of the anonymity of Yik Yak. Professors have been threatened and sexually harassed in their own classrooms DURING CLASS. People have used the app to make racist statements and threats, with one even saying they would “shoot every black person I see. Users have threatened rape on too many occasions to count.

In short, I’m still not thrilled that this thing is back, despite general reassurances from the app’s new owners that this will be a kinder, gentler Yik Yak. However, now that the die has been cast, it’s probably worth trying to make chicken salad out of this chicken crap. And that starts with understanding the value of anonymity when paired with an easy-to-use platform.

Back in the pre-digital days, newsrooms often had a tip line, where people could call in about things that concerned them or that they thought people had the right to know. It could be a complaint about their landlord or it could be an allegation against a city official or it could be some truly whacked-out weird story that only made sense in the demented mind of the caller. Journalists were able to separate wheat from chaff and dig through these tips, many of which yielded important stories.

The distinction here is that the tip-line tips that failed to pass muster never saw the light of day back then, while Yik Yak is basically a full public display of EVERYTHING, including whatever racist, sexist, homophobic, terrifying crap some imbeciles decided to type up with their thumbs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t diamonds in the cesspool, so it’s worth digging around.

When granted anonymity and easy access to something that gives them a voice, people are more likely to be honest in exposing things that are problematic. Journalists often talk about how things like Larry Nassar’s behavior and Harvey Weinstein’s behavior were “open secrets” among people in their areas of employment, but nobody would put that information out for public display. The #metoo movement has its roots in the idea that sexual violence affected more people than anyone knew, but the survivors remained silent for fear of public identification among other reasons. The ease of use associated with social media allowed the hashtag to spread and more people to come forth without having to fill out a 23-page document.

Yik Yak has the potential to take those key elements and provide you with information about things happening around you that people otherwise wouldn’t say publicly. It could be that the track coach is skimming money or that a professor in the art department is “handsy” with certain students. It could be that a CA or RA is selling weed to people on their floor or that the security cameras at a residence hall have been broken for six months.

With most “hush hush” stories, once there is a crack in the foundation, other people begin to chip in their experiences and help bring the whole house down. A single “yak” could start that process or at the very least get you the thread you need to start digging into that story more deeply. Like all stories rooted in anonymous tips, you should make absolutely certain that you have fully reported the piece before it sees the light of day.

However, every story has to start somewhere. Maybe it’ll be on Yik Yak this time.

 

 

 

5 Back-To-School Stories College Newspapers Should Do As COVID-19 Rises Again

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“Welcome to Journalism 221! I’ll be your professor this semester. Let’s recap the university’s safety rules regarding COVID-19…”

With many colleges and universities getting back into gear this week (We’re off for at least a couple more weeks, but I know a lot of folks are already strapping on masks and wading back into classrooms.), here are five potential story ideas for student newspapers:

RECAP THE RULES: This is a basic one that I’m sure most folks have thought of, particularly given the rise of the Delta Variant. (Honestly, it sounds like it should be a lousy movie sequel, brought to you from the people who turned “Sharknado” into a cottage industry… “This fall, get ready for ‘COVID-19, Episode II: The Delta Variant!’…“)

Still, the things that are going to be important to hit on will be the basics, such as:

  • Will move-in procedures  for residence halls/dorms change in any meaningful way for people this year?
  • What are the rules that govern mask wearing on campus, both inside of buildings and outside of them?
  • What are clubs, groups and organizations allowed to do or not do in terms of gathering and recruiting? For folks with a lot of clubs, a “student org fair” could be a super-spreader event that the administrators want to cancel. For folks with a strong Greek system, fraternity and sorority chapters tend to have rush near the front of school, so there’s a lot of social events. Who sets the rules and what are they?
  • What are testing procedures for COVID on campus and follow-up precautions in case of positive tests?
  • Are classes being given only in person, only online or in a hybrid/whatever situation? Do students still have “opt-out to online” options or not?
  • What are professors building in terms of “back up” for students who have the illness or have to quarantine after a close contact?

There are dozens of other questions, so consider having a think-tank kind of session with your staff and have someone write them down as you think of them to see how many stories could develop.

LANDLORD LIFE: Complaining about landlords who rent to college students is as common of an occurrence as complaining about tuition hikes and the lack of decent parking. This time around, however, there are more things to consider regarding landlords than if they’re gouging students or if they still haven’t located the source of that smell in the basement:

  • Rental availability: When I was in school 119 years ago, we had to sign next year’s lease for our August move-in date in early January. Students now tell me that around here, they get about three weeks of living in the property before landlords either have them sign up for year two or start showing the property. Given the limitations associated with the 2020-21 school year (isolation protocols, distance learning etc.), it might be a good time to check in with some big and small rental folks in your area to see how things are proceeding for their rentals.
  • Eviction moratoriums: When the Feds cracked down on evictions during the pandemic, most news stories focused on the poor and underprivileged people in big cities who couldn’t make rent during the shutdown period. College students were also renters, so the same rules applied to what could or couldn’t be done to them in regard to evictions. Thus, it might be interesting to see how this affected local landlords and if there are concerns regarding back rent that might never get covered.
  • Bankrupt businesses: Not every rental business is a giant monolith of towers of steel and glass, owned by a hedge fund and operated by a landlord who swims around in a Scrooge McDuck vault of money every night. The “mom-and-pop” rental folks who own a few beat-up houses or who have one small building also tend to populate the landscape of college rentals. Check to see how many of these either didn’t make it due to revenue loss or how many just called it quits, selling off their properties with a raging housing market.

CHECK THE PLAYERS ON YOUR SCORECARD: Old-time baseball vendors used to hawk programs by proclaiming, “You can’t tell who the players are without your scorecard!” (This was probably no more true than for the Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals series, after the teams shipped off a collective 17 players to other teams as part of a trading deadline fire sale. That represents about one-third of the players the teams would collectively carry.) The point here is that after about 18 months of isolation, semi-isolation and general lack of daily connectivity to the campus for most folks, it might be worth seeing who is still on campus and who is gone?

  • Any top-level administrators or high-level athletic coaches decide to go elsewhere or retire?
  • How many professors have called it a day? Any seriously senior-level folks decide to say, “Screw it. I’m not learning Canvas (or BlackBoard or D2L or whatever). I probably should have retired two years ago.” or are folks hanging on? A data check of retirements and resignations comparing the past year to the previous five or ten might be a good idea.
  • How many of the “legends” of campus have left? The cool custodian, the lunch server who always asked “How you doin’?” or the librarian who looked like they were installed when the library was built in 1875 might be gone. Also, think of other folks that make stuff happen on a day-to-day basis that might have been transferred, quit or retired?
  • Death. I know. It’s not a fun one to think about, but sometimes leaving a university isn’t an issue of choice. Check to see if the school has had any students, faculty, staff or administrators who died since you last checked in on everybody.

YOUR PANDEMIC GRADES… JUST AS GOOD. RIGHT?: I don’t think I’m alone in my doubt whenever university officials told us that the online/hybrid/KODAN Armada/whatever version of teaching was going to be “just as good” or “exactly the same” as what we did in a traditional classroom setting. It reminds me of those giant metal boxes they hang on the bathroom walls at truck stops that say, “If you love “Ralph Lauren’s Polo Black,” you’ll love our Pollos Hermanos scent. Insert $1.50 in quarters and push button C-5!” Although the original wasn’t my favorite, the truck-stop version smelled like sour milk and cat urine, so, no, it wasn’t “just as good.”

Someone, somewhere has to have a sense of what grades looked like over the three pandemic semesters (or two if you only want to count 2020-21) and how they compare with what happened before that. There are always anecdotes from students or teachers, but the data could reveal a few things:

  • How many more drops were there in courses during the pandemic terms as opposed to prior terms? If it was a lot more, find out why. If it wasn’t a lot more, report that as well.
  • How did grades fluctuate for both students AND professors? Students might say their grades were better or worse, but the data can back that up, generally speaking. It might also be interesting to see if you can find out if professors’ grading shifted during this time. Grades might be lower, because students had difficulty with life as well as the new environment. They might be higher because traditionally hard-ass professors decided to start giving out more A’s and B’s because of the difficulties.

ATHLETIC ATROPHY: I know a number of our sports had cancellations last year or severely diminished seasons. This is particularly true for sports that have a smaller budget, receive less attention or generally aren’t the kinds you’d see on TV outside of ESPN:8 The Ocho. With that in mind, it might be interesting to dig into the sports area to see how the teams are getting along at brushing off the rust, hitting the workout circuit and generally getting ready for another season

For some teams, it might be great, as it’s a time to let the nagging injuries heal that don’t get a chance to do so under normal circumstances. For others, it might be risky with the idea of muscular atrophy, bad eating/exercise habits setting in or a general loss of connection to the sport.

Hope these help or at least jump-start some ideas for future stories!

The Junk Drawer: The “Bad At Your Job” edition

(Allegedly, we’ve got enough paint in here to fix the Plover water tower.)

 

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:

 

WHERE IS BILL GATES AND HIS SQUIGGLY RED LINE WHEN YOU NEED THEM?

I often rely on spell check to bail me out of a “how is that spelled?” situation. That said, people can’t always rely on a spellcheck function to save them, as the folks in Plover, Wisconsin found out recently:

As painters scrambled to fix the error, some folks, like those at RayGun T-shirts had some fun with this:

In other news…

THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL-SENTINEL HAS LEARNED BASIC MATH

Some things are kind of patently obvious, but when you say them in sports with conviction (or a big honkin’ headline) they seem almost profound. To wit, in advance of Game 5 of the NBA finals, my hometown paper made this bold proclamation:

Let’s review how the NBA finals and basic math work:

  • The Phoenix Suns have the home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series, meaning four games will be played in Phoenix and three will be played in Milwaukee.
  • To win a best-of-seven series, a team needs to win four games out of the seven available.
  • If only three games are played in Milwaukee, the Bucks will obviously need to win at least one game in Phoenix.

This reminds me of the time I heard a coach say something along the lines of, “Most of our best come-from-behind wins happened when the other team was ahead.”

And, the Bucks did win one in Phoenix and won the championship, so I guess the headline wasn’t wrong, just dumb…

In other “Bucks-related news…”

 

IT’S A LEAD, NOT A CLOWN CAR

(If you’ve got this vibe happening in your lead, you might want to rework it…)

I get that not every lead can be 25-35 words, simply covering the 5W’s and 1H, but there needs to be some sort of limit to how much stuff a writer tries to cram into a single sentence. Here’s a look at a lead written shortly after the “Bucks in Six” victory on Tuesday night:

MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”

That’s 67 words, which is almost twice the “legal max” for a decent news lead. The problem with this lead isn’t just that it’s too long, but also that it’s a rambling word salad that abuses every element of writing we teach:

  • Lousy word choice: “Aftermath” means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.” If this was this wonderful and legendary thing, it shouldn’t have aftermath for Giannis. It should have aftermath for the Suns.
  • Adjective-palooza: “Immediate aftermath” and “legendary performance” go without saying, but there’s also “his five-year, supermax contract extension.” You could chop upwards of five words out of here and still have the same meaning.
  • “Partial Quotes” that “don’t help:” Read both of those partial quotes and tell me exactly why they are in quote marks. Save partial quotes for things that merit them like odd phrases or dangerous terms: (During his post-game interview, forward Bob Smith called referee Jim Xfer a “racist, cracker punk” for calling a foul on him in the game’s closing seconds, adding, there was no way Xfer would make “that bulls–t call on a bench-warming white boy.”)
  • Drowning the noun-verb-object: When students have difficulty figuring out what a sentence is trying to convey, I tell them to do a simple sentence diagram so they can locate the noun and verb (and possibly the object). Once they find those, they can build around them judiciously. Here, the author drowns the sentence core in all sorts of slop that doesn’t help people understand the point of the story. The simpler and more plain the sentence core, the better off you are. Let this cheesy PSA from the 1980s be your guide:

And finally, speaking of leads that need a hug…

 

ALLEGEDLY, ALLEGATIONS ARE ALLEGED

When it comes to words to avoid, put “allegedly” at the top of the list. As we’ve detailed here before, this offers you no legal protection, hides the source of the allegations and often leads to misplaced modifiers.

I get the journalists are often trying to couch their statements or cover their keesters, but the use of allegedly here makes even less sense than it usually would:

A vehicle allegedly struck a 6-year-old girl who was riding a bike on the 2100 block of High Ridge Trail in Fitchburg between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Sunday evening.

A few reasons why this is dumb:

  • If “allegedly” is meant to keep us safe as writers (which it doesn’t do, but let’s just say it does for the sake of the argument), exactly what are we worried about getting sued for here? Are we worried that an unnamed vehicle will sue? The girl’s parents? The bike? Allegedly used in association with a direct accusation at least would make sense (“Sen. Jane Jones allegedly stole money from her campaign fund.”) but here?
  • If “allegedly” is trying to cover us as writers in case the thing we said happened didn’t happen (which again… yeah… I know… broken record here…), what are we trying to say in the lead? That we don’t believe the girl? (“Mommy! I got hit by a car while riding my bike!” “Honey, is that really true or were you doing street BMX again?”)
  • If we are really worried about couching things in the lead, why was this the headline: 6-year-old riding bike struck by vehicle in Fitchburg

When it comes to “allegedly,” we’ll let Lou Redwood of “Semi Pro” have the final say here:

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

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

Stories with holes: It’s not really journalism if you leave me with more questions than answers

10 Cities With the Big Bad Pothole Problems | Firestone Complete Auto Care

If your story looks like this, you’ve got problems.

Sunday morning had me facing my own level of mortality when my dad flashed the obituary section of the paper in front of me and asked, “Did you know this guy?”

Sure enough, I did.

Peter and I had gone to high school together and even been on the debate team at the same time. He was a year ahead of me and was wicked smart. He tutored me in geometry, a Herculean task to say the least, and he was the school’s valedictorian the year he graduated.

He went off to two Ivy League schools, earning a law degree and spending much of his career in patent law out on the West Coast. He died far too young, at age 47, which left me with the question I’m sure most people would have asked:

“How did he die?”

Despite my best googling and research skills, I couldn’t figure this out. I asked a couple people we held in common over the years, only to have them asking the same question I had. I even emailed his law firm and they didn’t have anything to tell me.

Which leads us to the point of this piece: Journalistic content shouldn’t have your readers asking crucial questions when they are done with the story. When I teach editing, I refer to stories that have this problem as having holes. The job of reporters and editors is to make sure the holes get filled or discussed before a story is published.

In the case of obituaries, we’ve discussed this before and explaining that they’re more for the living than the dead, so we need to make sure they serve as a complete telling of the person’s life. It should be clear that the story of the person’s life is the most important portion of the story, but it also remains the case that the only reason we’re telling it now is because the person has died.

(Side note: When I worked at a newspaper a long time ago, the local style guide dictated that an obituary written on anyone under the age of 70 included the cause of death whenever possible, as most people would be curious of what caused this person’s too-soon demise. I found an older edition of the style guide, which required the COD for those older than 60. Several of us surmised that our boss changed it when he got older, as he didn’t want to be in the “acceptable to be dead” demographic.)

(Second side note: I have told Amy that when I die, however I die, she needs to include the cause of death in my obituary. I don’t care if I died breaking my neck by falling off the couch trying to kiss my own butt as part of a TikTok challenge. If it mattered enough for me to die while doing it, tell people. I don’t need folks speculating…)

In the case of larger investigative stories, holes can unintentionally undermine the credibility of sources. When something is missing and readers have questions, they can become suspicious of the entire story.

Case in point: The Kansas City Star dropped a bombshell story of a former KU football player who stated that several of his former teammates harassed and threatened him and his family. The allegations included a teammate loosening the lug nuts of one of his car’s tires, teammates bursting into his apartment to threaten his family and the athletic department trying to buy his silence to the tune of $50,000.

The story mentions four players, but never names them.

I spent half the story wondering who these former KU football players were.

I spent the other half of the story why, if these allegations were credible, the paper didn’t name these dudes who attacked and threatened this kid.

Neither question got answered in the text, leading me to wonder more about the kid making the allegations and the author of the piece than anything else.

Filling in holes like this can allow the readers to make up their own minds about the credibility of sources, the seriousness of a situation and a dozen other things. However, when they are left hanging, they can’t exercise proper judgment.

I recall reading a story more than a dozen years ago about a small-town beef between a mayor and a city administrator over something the mayor had said. The administrator called it something like “the most offensive slur I have ever heard” while the mayor said it was something like “just a plain-folks saying that was being misinterpreted.”

I read the whole story, waiting to see what was said. The writer didn’t include it, didn’t clue me in on what it might be (a racial slur, a demeaning phrase describing people with disabilities, a sexist remark) and also didn’t tell me why that wasn’t included.

The fact I remember this, while I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, clearly demonstrates that holes can stick with a reader for quite some time.

Here are a few things you can do to find and fill holes that will have your readers thanking you:

CONVERSE WITH THE READER AS YOU WRITE: Journalism has long had a tradition of filling in 5W’s and 1H or checking off news values and considering the job done. Those elements still have value, but we really should be spending more time focusing on the needs of the audience.

After all, when those tenets were crafted, journalists usually knew their audiences intimately and the number of sources of information were far more limited than they are now. Audience-centricity was baked into the process back then and people couldn’t just hop on the internet and find answers to their questions elsewhere.

A good way to make sure that you’re working for the audience is to imagine a conversation with the readers when you are writing. You tell them the most important thing you can and then follow the thread of how you imagine that conversation will go:

You: Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house around 2 a.m.

Reader: OH NO! Is everyone OK?

You: No one got hurt because the smoke detector woke them up and they got out right away.

Reader: How bad was the fire?

You: The house is a total loss. Firefighters say more than $200,000 in damage.

Reader: How did this happen?

You: The water heater in the basement got a short circuit and started some oily rags on fire…

When you’re done going through the process, see if what you’ve written does what it needs to or if there are holes. Also, you can review the ordering of your content to see if it follows the pattern of what you think they’ll want to know first. This helps you avoid starting the story with “The Berlin Fire Department, assisted by volunteer firefighters from the town of Aurora, responded to a report of a fire at 111 S. Main St. around 2 a.m. Sunday…”

IF YOU GIVE THE READERS DIRECTIONS, MAKE SURE THEY CAN FOLLOW THEM: A number of stories will tell people to do something or avoid something or respond to something. These stories become problematic when people aren’t told how to do these things.

Back when the illness we were all freaking out about was the Swine Flu (H1N1), a local daycare had an outbreak and had to shut down. The people at the daycare told parents to watch their kids carefully for symptoms of the illness. In fact, the story on the outbreak mentioned this important activity at least three times in six paragraphs.

The problem? The story never said what the symptoms were, so that wasn’t really helpful at all.

A similar story I remember reading was back when Zoe was about 4 and she really had an interest in Santa. The local paper reported that breakfast with Santa, which was in danger of being cancelled, had been green-lit, thanks to a generous donor. The whole story talked about how kids were going to have breakfast with Santa and that it was so great we didn’t lose breakfast with Santa and how important breakfast with Santa was.

The story never once mentioned when and where the event was taking place. Did the writer expect parents to wander the streets of Omro, looking for a fat guy in a red suit?

In the digital age, we can, obviously, look up things like H1N1 symptoms or local events on a city website, but that’s not the point. If we’re supposed to inform readers about important things, we need to go all the way. Saying, “Well, they can look it up” is akin to listing Chicken Kiev on the menu at a nice restaurant, and then serving patrons bunch of raw ingredients and a recipe card.

IF YOU CAN’T (OR WON’T) FILL THE HOLE, ACKNOWLEDGE IT: Not all holes in stories come from poor writing and reporting. In some cases, information isn’t available. In other cases, a publication decides to err on the side of caution while reporting. Even more, the publication might have a policy that prohibits the publication of certain content.

In those cases, you’re going to leave a hole. When you do, explain what’s going on so your readers can follow along:

“At the family’s request, the name of the MegaJackpot winner will not be released.”

“The cause of death has not been determined, the medical examiner stated.”

“In accordance with the Daily Tattler’s policies, stories do not name assault victims and instead provide a first-name-only pseudonym.”

Explaining WHY the paper wasn’t naming names could have been really helpful Kansas City Star story:

“Due to the lack of supporting legal documents/At the request of the paper’s legal team/Because we believed the kid enough to run the story, but not enough to risk a libel suit, The Kansas City Star is not naming the four players accused of harassing Caperton Humphrey…”

At that point, I could figure out if this was a case of “The lawyers won’t let us, even though we have the goods” or a case of “This story’s hanging by a thread anyway, so let’s not make it collapse.” Knowing which way the wind is blowing on this story would not only satisfy my own curiosity, but it would also make me feel more or less willing to share it on my social media.

In the end, make sure you’re giving the readers the most complete picture possible, even if that means explaining why that picture is incomplete.

Reviewing the “foul-mouthed cheerleader” Supreme Court decision with a legal eagle

About a week or so ago, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the case of Mahanoy v. B.L., supporting the free expression rights of students who were operating outside of the schoolhouse gates and on their own time. We took a look at this decision at the time on the blog, picking through the outcomes of the case, but here’s a brief recap:

Brandy Levy was a cheerleader in 2017, when she dropped several F-bombs on Snapchat after failing to make the varsity squad. Although her social media post was done on a Saturday, at a local convenience store and caused no major school disruption, officials at Mahanoy’s high school penalized her by banning her from cheer activities for a year. When Levy and her parents were unable to get the school to reconsider this situation, they sued over the abridgment of free speech.

As with most major court decisions, a lot of the important content is in the nuances of the decision and what precedents the case can set for future situations. To help untangle what happened and what this case means, legal eagle Daxton “Chip” Stewart was nice enough to grant the blog an interview on this topic. Stewart is a full professor at Texas Christian University, where he teaches courses in media law. He has a Ph.D. in journalism from Mizzou and a JD from the University of Texas School of Law. He has also written “Social Media and the Law” and co-authored “The Law of Public Communication.”

Below is an edited transcript of the interview conducted a few days after the decision came down:

Before the ruling came out, what were you generally expecting the court to say in this case? In other words, did this ruling surprise you or was is something you saw coming?

“I want to say I saw this decision coming… I had a conversation about this a few days before I said, ‘Probably what the court is going do is extend Tinker to off campus speech in certain circumstances and that’s exactly what they did. So in a way I sort of saw that coming but I had a lot of fear and justified fear. Some of this was when the third circuit decision came out last summer, it was a great decision and I was gleeful about it.

“I’m working on a new edition of the social media law book and I thought, ‘This is great.’ We finally have a federal court of appeals saying off campus speech has First Amendment protection from administrator supervision and extra-curricular speech or extra-curricular activities are an extension of curricular activities so if you discipline somebody for doing something regarding extra-curricular activities like suspending them from the football team or the dance team, that’s a violation of the First Amendment. We didn’t have a decision say that clearly at this level before. So I loved that third circuit decision…

“So my fear was the Supreme Court doesn’t take up decisions to say, ‘Good job, Third Circuit! We agree.’ They take up decisions because they think there was some kind of error that needs to be resolved. So I was very worried that they were going to come in and strike down the Third Circuit opinion and basically do what they did in Morse versus Frederick, which is hedge or decide against the students. So going in my fear was the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled in favor of a student in 50 years. It was Tinker and then basically a lot of curbing and limiting Tinker… Case after case after case, it was someone saying, ‘Let’s extend Tinker here!’ and the court saying, ‘Nope.’

“So in that context with 50 years without a good pro-student, free-speech case, I was worried they’d go down that path again. And they didn’t and that surprised me.”

 

Aside from the ruling itself, did the 8-1 majority decision surprise you at all? It seems like most decisions are coming across as 5-4’s these days, so to have that number of justices on one side of a free-speech case… Was that surprising to you when you saw it?

“A little bit, yeah. I thought at least it would be 7-2 and the two being Alito and Thomas. We knew Thomas wasn’t going to agree. Thomas famously continues to say Tinker was wrongly decided… So my concern was that it was going to be a majority of Alito and Thomas, where they bring along the three Trump appointees to constitute a 5-4 majority…

That the eight could come together and agree that this kind of speech is protected was a very good thing to see. A little bit surprising, but a very good thing.

 

What’s your general sense of what this ruling says for free expression, particularly as it pertains to high school and maybe even college students? What are some key things people should be aware of when it comes to this ruling, either positive or negative in relation to free expression?

“Two things, really. One is explicit, one is implicit. The explicit is that the Tinker test is going to extend to off campus speech not during school activities. We saw in Morse versus Frederick, the ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ case, that the SC said in that one, ‘Yes, this speech was off campus, it was an Olympic torch relay, but it was a school-sponsored activity, so the Tinker test applies here.’ The court had not gone so far as to say, ‘We’re going to extend it not only to off campus but also off campus, non-school activities.’

“In this case, it was a girl writing on Snapchat at the Cocoa Hut, a convenience store. So the Supreme Court says, ‘Yes, the First Amendment even applies there… Students still have free speech, First Amendment protections not just inside the school house gates but also off campus in their free time, in their non-school time, even if it might have on-campus implications.’ So the First Amendment extends out into the real world, 24-7 when it comes to schools disciplining student speech. That’s a great outcome.

“A better outcome might have been that schools have no authority to discipline students over external speech and that was kind of the coalition that Breyer built for his balancing test was to say, ‘OK, school administrators do have some rights to sanction off-campus, non-school speech if it’s going to have an influence on campus, like starting on campus disruption.’ They mention harassment and dangerous violence. All things considered, it’s a pretty good outcome.

“So that’s your explicit one: The Supreme Court saying, ‘We’re going to extend Tinker, off-campus, 24/7. School administrators, if they want to discipline students for what happens on non-school time, they have to pass the Tinker substantial disruption test.’ That’s a good outcome.

“As for the implicit one, it goes back to the Third Circuit decision, which says extra-curricular activities have value and can create an avenue for appeal for students who have been disciplines by those extra curricular activities.

“So, in this case, we’re talking about a student on the cheer squad or who didn’t make the cheer squad or whatever it was being punished. In the past we did not have a good decision in which the court said, ‘That’s protected by the First Amendment.’ You can’t just kick someone out of school for speech but you can take them off the dance team or the football squad because that’s not school.

“So the implicit one here is that even the cheer squad, having been suspended from the cheer squad… You have a right to sue for that. It’s valuable There’s a First Amendment harm. That’s where this is the only way this decision works is to recognize that extracurricular activities at schools are valuable and that you and sue if you lose the privilege to be on a team due to speech. That’s really, really valuable.”

 

Do you think this will at all deter schools from trying to clamp down on unpopular expression? Or will it continue to be business as usual for administrators and educators who want to suppress free speech?

“I do worry about that. You have what the law says, what the Supreme Court says and then you have what actually happens in practice. The cheer squad is going to have a policy,  A football coach is going to have those rules and if you don’t like those rules, you’re going to have to be willing to go to court and sue over those rules. They’re still the boss and they don’t care about judges and courts. There is very little for them to lose due to qualified immunity where they say, ‘I thought I was doing the right thing.’ So, the law for public officials have that right.

“Practically, you’re still going to have basically speech codes and behavior codes that clearly restrict free speech rights. There are going to be dress codes, behavior codes and social media codes and people are going to be disciplined for them. It’s just going to be easier for them to sue and win now because it’s clear in every court in the country now. That’s great, but you’re still going to have to be willing to take on the expense of suing your school and hoping that four or five years later, you get a good decision.”

Usually when a court makes a free speech or free press ruling on a high school level, some college administrators think, “Hey, we can do that too!” and vice versa. Do you see this decision having any impact on colleges?

“What I expect and what I hope is that we already have a sliding scale where little kids have the least rights, college kids have the most rights. I sort of expect that whatever restrictions a HS can place on kids, it’s going to be hard for a college to do that.

“The thing in this case is that it uses Loco Parentis, which is asking how much room do we give the administrators in high school to act as parents to oversee the kids. I loved the line that said, ‘We highly doubt that BL’s parents gave the school the right to act in Loco Parentis at the Cocoa Hut.’ Private time, the school isn’t acting as a parent when she’s off campus. Well, once you’re adult, once you’re in college, you don’t have loco parentis because you’re adult. I don’t think this case will work in a college situation because you won’t have the loco parentis issue.”

 

If there were any big take away you think you would want people to have that we hadn’t discussed to this point, what would it be? What’s crucial that goes beyond the basics?

“When Breyer says why this is important, he uses that “Schools are the nurseries of democracy line.’ Breyer says that we need to understand that public schools are where students learn how to be good democratic citizens, good participants in a democracy. We need these places to educate people about the value of free speech. Free speech is necessary in these environments to build good citizens of our democracy and that includes speech we don’t like in some cases.

“This is something that a lot of free speech organizations and advocates like SPLC and FIRE have been pushing for years: If we have our high schools be places where administrators can act like petty tyrants when it comes to free speech, then the lesson students get is that it’s OK to be a tyrant over speech and they carry that into their college years and their adult lives. What they learn is that it’s OK to sanction speech you disagree with or don’t like…

“This is what petty tyrants do. They silence speech they don’t like. When it starts with principals and teachers telling students, “We’ve got the power and we can silence speech we don’t like,” students get that message and they live that out. That’s a real problem… We should be teaching our students to tolerate speech they disagree with, not punishing them for saying things we disagree with. And we should be leading by example.”

Gimme an F! Gimme a U! Supreme Court rules in favor of foul-mouthed cheerleader, free expression for students

 

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that schools cannot regulate students’ off-campus speech in the same manner as if the speech happened on campus, giving free-expression advocates an important precedent in today’s social media age. In an 8-1 decision on the case of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the school infringed upon the First Amendment rights of Brandy Levy when it attempted to suspend her from the cheer-leading squad.

We talked about this case at length when the Court heard arguments back in April, but the short version is this: In 2017, Levy didn’t make the varsity cheer squad and took to Snapchat to F-bomb the process and her school. The snap was done outside of school and on her own time, deleted shortly after it was posted and caused no major problems at the school. Still, the school decided to suspend her from team activities for a year. When an agreement couldn’t be reached to undo the punishment, she and her parents sued the school.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer made three key points that should help free-expression advocates in the future:

  1. While the school has an interest in the activities of the students while they are off campus, it is the parent, not the administrator, who makes the rules for the kids (and dispenses the punishments) when the kids aren’t in school. Thus, if the parents are cool with a kid spending the weekend dropping F-bombs on Snapchat, the school will just have to cope.
  2. If the school had won this case, it would essentially have the right to monitor student speech and punish students for it on a 24/7 schedule. That could give students ZERO opportunities to free expression that was not school approved for the entirety of their academic careers. If Tinker established that students don’t shed their Constitutional rights by entering the schoolhouse gates, students sure as heck shouldn’t shed them by the mere dint of being of school age.
  3. Schools have a vested interest in allowing free speech of the students, so that they can learn how to contribute to the marketplace of ideas. In other words, if you don’t give them the chance to learn how to do this, they’ll never do it well.

Breyer also noted that there were already ruling on the books that would deal with concerns the school had regarding issues like fighting words, true threats and bullying, also saying this didn’t rise to that level.

Despite the pro-student ruling, some journalists noted that this ruling didn’t provide a decisive blow for free expression:

B.L. offered the justices an opportunity to announce a single unifying rule that would govern all free speech cases involving off-campus speech by public school students. But the Court dodged that opportunity.

The reason is that it is quite difficult to come up with such a unifying rule. Though Breyer’s opinion holds that Levy’s school went too far when it punished her, he also acknowledges that there may be examples of off-campus speech that should be punished by public schools — including cases of “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals” or “threats aimed at teachers or other students.”

I can see the point there, but let’s consider a few key points:

  1. Free speech won on this one, despite the “Suicide Squad” style case we were dealing with here. Nobody likes a mouthy teen, so the fact that people the age of Levy’s parents and grandparents stood up for her right to F-bomb the universe says something important about the rule of law and the protections of the First Amendment.
  2. It was an 8-1 ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that I’m still not clear on, but he stood alone. (I’m interviewing a legal expert for next week’s post, so I’ll try to get an answer on that.) I was thinking if we won at all on this one, it would be a 5-4. Getting eight of nine of these people to agree on anything from free speech to which D.C. restaurant has the best egg rolls is a miracle of modern man.
  3. It establishes some ground to prevent school districts from trying to write rules that allow them to regulate social media and off-campus speech. Sure, they can give it a shot now, but this ruling gives free-speech advocates a pretty heavy bat to swing back.

To close up, here are a few tidbits that I loved:

Give Me Freedom AND Give Me Cocoa Hut: It was great watching the nine most revered legal minds in our country today issue an opinion with multiple F-bombs in it. It was also great having them dissect the use, tenets and purpose of Snapchat in a decision as well. However, I loved this section most of all, in which they explained the school’s lack of loco parentis on behalf of B.L. when she made the post:

“B. L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. And there is no reason to believe B. L.’s parents had delegated to school officials their own control of B. L.’s behavior at the Cocoa Hut.”

I want a “Loco Parentis at the Cocoa Hut” T-shirt…

Drama? We’re talking about DRAMA? I’m sure legal scholars will have a serious set of debates regarding the lack of a bright line established in the following paragraph, regarding the necessary level of academic disruption to allow for the punishment of off-campus speech:

Third, the school presented some evidence that expresses(at least indirectly) a concern for team morale. One of the coaches testified that the school decided to suspend B. L., not because of any specific negative impact upon a particular member of the school community, but “based on the fact that there was negativity put out there that could impact students in the school.” App. 81. There is little else, however, that suggests any serious decline in team morale—to the point where it could create a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain team cohesion. As we have previously said, simple “undifferentiated fear or apprehension . . . is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Tinker, 393 U. S., at 508.

Me? I’m the parent of a high school cheerleader and I can tell you unequivocally that EVERYTHING on the face of the PLANET could be covered by the school’s claim regarding diminution of morale vis a vis the cheer squad.

The drive home from practice every night is a play-by-play of who is ignoring whom on Snapchat(“Leaving people unread is so much drama,” I have been told…) or who is saying who isn’t putting in enough effort or who is skipping practice to be with her boyfriend or who is calling whom a “hoe” today because… well… they’re just a FRESHMAN and they sent a Snap to someone else’s boyfriend and shouldn’t have…

The school might have been better off just saying, “Look, if they’re breathing and on the cheer squad, we have jurisdiction over them” rather than trying to claim a cheer squad could be drama free.

Don’t Hate the Snap, Hate the Quadratic Equation: What leads to a “substantial disruption” of school activities is a key trigger to allow for schools to suppress student speech. The school’s claim of such disruption was discussed at this point in the ruling:

[T]he school argues that it was trying to prevent disruption, if not within the classroom, then within the bounds of a school-sponsored extracurricular activity. But we can find no evidence in the record of the sort of “substantial disruption” of a school activity or a threatened harm to the rights of others that might justify the school’s action. Tinker, 393 U. S., at 514. Rather, the record shows that discussion of the matter took, at most, 5 to 10 minutes of an Algebra class “for just a couple of days”

I remember algebra courses quite well and I can guarantee that I would have gladly discussed ANYTHING to kill off 5-10 minutes of that class period. I somehow doubt we can lay the blame on Levy for this here.

 

 

“Don’t Take No From Someone Who Isn’t Empowered To Say Yes”

My friend Allison used the quote in the headline this weekend when we were teaching her daughter/my goddaughter how to negotiate for better prices at a flea market in South Haven, Michigan. It turned out to be a golden bit of advice she learned from Peter Greenberg, a Emmy-award-winning journalist who was talking to the students at our old college newspaper.

Here’s the story as relayed by Allison (Greenberg himself recalled this story during a guest appearance on the “Destination Everywhere” Podcast):

Greenberg was explaining how to get an important story and how to persist when people didn’t want to be helpful.

He wanted access to a nuclear attack sub as part of a story he was working on. This was in the late 1980s when this was happening, which happened to be when we were still in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so letting a journalist wander around a nuclear sub was laughable at best.

Greenberg kept poking at Naval officials for access, each one basically telling him, “There is no way this is happening.” At one point he asked, “OK, if this COULD be done, who would be the one person who could allow it to happen?” It turned out to be the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Greenberg got the Navy to agree to give him the meeting, which was supposed to be kind of a 10-minute, “we had a meeting” meeting. Instead, Greenberg noticed a photo of a ship on the admiral’s wall and Greenberg knew a lot about that particular ship. Instead of talking about sub access, they started talking about the boat. By the time the 10 minutes had ended, the admiral invited Greenberg to lunch and eventually granted him the permission he sought.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes,'” he told the group.

At the heart of his story were three key things that can be helpful to you as a journalist:

TAKE A SHOT: When Greenberg kept hearing “no,” he asked for a meeting that the people essentially told him wasn’t going to lead anywhere. In the podcast mentioned earlier in this post, Greenberg said the people setting up the meeting for him basically asked him why he’d want to fly all the way to Pearl Harbor just to hear “no” from one more person. He figured he had nothing at this point, so he might as well take a shot in person with the one person who could get him what he needed. What was the worst thing that could happen? He might have no story and a case of jet lag and that’s about it.

If the story is important enough to you, you need to take a shot at it before deciding it’s not going to happen. You never know what you might get if you give up before you give it a chance to succeed.

FIND COMMON GROUND: The thing that made this work was a bit of serendipity. If the admiral had a picture of a sunset, a poster of Porsche or a velvet Elvis on his wall, Greenberg might have not found his in. However, as he explained in the podcast, he realized he needed a connection and he found it:

They gave me a ten-minute appointment at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. I flew up on a Saturday. I walked in to see him. He could care less about me. I was told to have a meeting. He didn’t want to be there. It was an office the size of Grand Central Station. Everybody was in their dress whites. They didn’t want me to be there. It was like a courtesy call, give him a commemorative coin and get him out.

This is the difference. You seek out common ground and I knew that I had maybe fifteen seconds to figure out what the common ground was. I got lucky because behind his desk was a photograph of a boat and it turned out I knew the boat well.

I said to him, “Is that a Bertram 31?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “That’s the best boat they ever built.” He said, “You’re not kidding?” I said, “Let me guess. When you make a hard right turn, the engine cavitates and the water pump overflows?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Here’s how you fix it. You’re going to do a bypass on the impeller.”

We start talking like that and ten minutes later, the officer is going to say, “Admiral, your time is up.” He looked at me and said, “Do you got lunch plans?” I said, “I’m all yours.”

<SNIP>

That’s called chutzpah and luck.

If I’d walked into his office for that ten-minute meeting, he’s like, “Can I go on a sub?” “Get the hell out of here.”

You want to look for ways to connect with a source during an interview. That’s why doing it in person is often so valuable. You can look around and see things that they have around them to help you size up your subject. Starting with a discussion about a picture or a plaque or even a baseball card they have on display can get you an “in” that makes them see you as a kindred spirit as opposed to a pain the butt.

GO TO WHO CAN SAY YES: I think I’m going to use that quote with every interviewing class for as long as I live now, in that it perfectly captures what we should be doing when it comes to getting key information.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes'” is simple, direct and yet amazingly mind-blowing, as it dawns on me that I’ve probably failed in this regard myriad times in my journalism career and my daily life.

When you want permission for something, you need to go to the person who can grant it. Unfortunately, there are often underlings, minions and other pencil-pushers who get put in your path and try to dissuade you from getting that permission. If it’s important enough for you to pursue that permission, get past those people and go find the person who is empowered to grant it.

Like many things, this can be taken too far or in the wrong way. I am in no way saying you should become the snotty person who is holding up the line at the store, loudly proclaiming, “I need to speak to your manager!” because the bananas are ringing up at 39 cents per pound when the sign clearly said 36 cents per pound. However, I am saying most folks take the first “no” as a reason to give up far too easily.

Find the person empowered to say yes and see what that person says. If it’s still “no” at least you’ll know that nobody else is getting your story. If it’s “yes,” you got what you came here to get.

Gone Fishin’: LEEROY JENKINS edition

Somehow, I made it through the semester that felt like this:

For those of you unfamilar with the reference, here is the video that quite literally might be Patient Zero for “going viral.”

There were days it felt like we were Leeroy… Charging headlong into the unknown without any sense of what danger was ahead. There were most days where we felt like the rest of the people in the “Pals for Life” group, trying desperately to calculate the best way to do something as our administrators screamed, “Nuff talk, Let’s do this!” and ran headlong into a clearly bad situation.

In either case, I hope you were amused, informed and energized by this year’s posts.

As is the case, I’m closing up shop for about a month, give or take, before I come back with the weekly summer schedule. If anything important happens or if you need me, I’ll be back early and make sure we’re keeping current on whatever is going on.

Take care and get some rest. You earned it.

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

5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

A student showed up at my office around 7:30 this morning with a case of Diet Coke and a thank you card.

“I wanted to give you something to say thank you for being the best part of my semester,” she said. “You really gave all of us such a great experience.”

I was grateful she felt that way, but truth be told, it sure as hell didn’t feel like I was giving anyone a great experience. It was less like “Top Gun” excellence and more like, “Sully landing the plane on the Hudson RIver” survival. I found it a miracle that we made it this far and that nobody lost a limb in the process.

I know a lot of us in education feel like this year flat-out kicked our asses and that maybe our students aren’t getting the best out of us because of it. In an attempt to close off this year of weirdness, I found myself struggling for answers. After about a dozen attempts to write this piece, I decided that it’s less about what we know and demonstrate to our students that matters, but rather what we want to know and how we want to serve them that matters.

With that in mind, here are five questions I think good professors ask of their students, no matter the situation or how long it has been since we shared a classroom together:

ARE YOU OK?

I think most of us have asked this question at least 30 times a day over the past 18 months and really wanted to know the actual answer every single time.

Students often enter our offices with one specific need: A question about a test, a concern about a grade or a request for some sort of special dispensation on an upcoming deadline. However, great professors can see that there is usually something else going on underneath the surface as students mentally flail about like the feet of a duck that seemingly moves smoothly across a lake. There is a job that is overworking them, there is a family member who is leaning on them or there is a roommate who is sapping them of their will to live.

The regular people in their lives give them the “regular people” advice about what to do or how to cope or why they just need to suck it up. Professors tend to have a completely different angle on things because we’ve been around the block more times than a moron with a stuck turn signal.

In the game of life, Mom and Dad see their child as a piece on the board, moving toward a goal. Friends see fellow game-players who are trying to make it through unscathed. Professors not only see the whole board, but also every game that has ever been played in front of them over years or decades. We know not only what each move will do, but the six moves that can come after that initial choice that will allow us to better predict success or failure.

Still, tapping that resource can be tough for students who often thing we have more important things to do than help them with whatever is problematic in their lives. That’s why even just opening the door a little bit with “Are you OK?” can make a world of difference.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Professors who care put themselves out there for students because without those students, our lives would be pretty dull and relatively meaningless. Helping other people has been baked into who I am since I was a kid. If someone is working on a project, I have been taught to grab a hammer or paint brush and put myself to work. If someone is struggling, you offer assistance in whatever way you can. You don’t wait for someone to ask for help. You ask how you can make things better.

In classes, sometimes the help is easy stuff like, “Can you read my lead and see if I’m on the right track?” or “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take next semester. Can you look over my schedule?” Around this time of year, the help can be a little more taxing, but still pretty normal, like serving as a reference, writing a letter of recommendation or reassuring a parent that, yes, Johnny or Janie will get a job and, no, he or she won’t be living in your basement forever.

I have found some of the best moments in life come from helping my students, even when it had nothing to do with this semester’s class. I’ve taught students how to change their own oil and swap their car’s battery. I’ve fixed cars for kids who were about to get shafted by some greasy weasel at a 10-minute auto repair joint. Amy and I have brought freezer-ready dinners to students who just had babies and were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being new parents. We’ve shared tips and given some kid-equipment to these folks as well. (That vibrating baby chair is a lifesaver some days, quite literally, one student told me.)

I’ve answered questions like, “How do you refinish a piece of furniture?” and “Can you tell me how bail bonds work?” (That one was a little dicey…) I’ve moved furniture and edited cover letters. None of it was a chore and thinking back on it makes me happy because these folks trusted me with whatever it was that needed doing.

The funny thing about this question? I find that once I ask it of a kid, I tend not to need to ask it again. After the first time, they’re the ones asking, “Could you help me with something?”

 

DO YOU KNOW HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU?

In the early phases, I tend to ask it on the simple stuff: You asked for help. You figured out how to properly attribute a quote. You got your first story published in student media. You got an internship at a place that NEVER gives internships to people from your school.

Once you graduate, you never stop being one of “my kids” and I don’t think I’m the only professor who feels that way about our connections with “our kids.” I watch from afar as you take jobs, move up the ladder and become leaders in the field. I see you start your own businesses, fight for social justice and make a name for yourselves. I’m proud to tell people, “I taught that kid!” when you show up in the newspaper (most times… Stay out of the police blotter…) or you are broadcasting on radio or TV. I am thrilled to let people know about your accomplishments and your awards and your growth as a professional.

However, you don’t have to do any of that stuff and I am still ridiculously proud of you. I’m proud of my students who have the courage to work through their mental health issues. I’m proud of my students who courageously battle cancer or overcome sicknesses and persevere. I’m proud of you for making amazing life choices to get married or to have kids or to go a completely different way. I’m proud that you are who you are and that you can stand on your own two feet and say, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.”

When our paths first cross, so many of the students seem like newborn deer: gangly, gawky and awkward as they try to stand on wobbly legs in a world that seems far too fast for them. Somehow they learn to steady themselves and improve their overall presence. They get stronger and faster and better as they learn from doing things right and even more from doing things wrong. We’re there to guide them, but they have to do this on their own, otherwise, they’ll never be strong enough to make it when we’re not around.

When they actually put the pieces together, it’s something amazing to behold.

And it’s worth letting them know what a big deal that is.

 

WILL THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY?

The people who enter my class tend to have a lot of questions. If they stick with me for the rest of the degree, they tend to have even more. I’m not sure if this means I inspire them to think critically and question their surroundings, or if I’m just confusing the crap out of them.

However, most of the questions they ask are geared toward a tangible outcome: “What do I need to know for the test?”  “Is it worth it to double major?” “Will this help me get a job?” “Is the salary for this job enough to keep me alive?”

These are all the questions we’ve been trained to ask in the college setting and they all make sense: You want to pass the class, graduate, get hired and earn enough to survive. The one thing that we tend not to think about in a real concrete way is if what we are doing will make us happy. Going through school always seems to feel like this scene from “School Ties:”

It took a long time for me to figure this out, but most of what makes life worth living and jobs worth taking is the degree to which you actually like what you’re doing. Dad always told me that if you find a job you love, you’ll never really work a day in your life. It’s mostly true, in that I have found that not every day is an Academy Award-winning performance and there are some days that are a lot better than others. However, when something makes me happy, I look forward to doing it. When something doesn’t, I tend to avoid it or do a half-assed job at it.

Students often tell me that they want to go to law school or grad school or start their own business or change majors or a million other things. The thing I immediately want to know is, “Do you think this will make you happy? If the answer is yes, plan well, hedge against failure and work like hell at it. If the answer is no, think again about why you want to do this at all.”

A lot of things that might make you happy aren’t going to be the smartest of choices, (“I want to start my own company where I blow bong hits in the lungs of people’s pets and post the videos on YouTube…”) which is where those other caveats come in. Still, we tend to consider the importance of happiness in inverse proportion to all the other things that are far less important than if we will really like what we’re getting ourselves into.

 

YOU KNOW I’M ALWAYS HERE IF YOU NEED ME, RIGHT?

I have now spent more of my life teaching college than I have not being a college teacher, and it doesn’t matter where I taught you or how long ago it was, you’re never really going to get rid of me.

The best part of my life is hearing back from students who have long since stopped needing my help on a test, my advice about an internship or my signature on a course override card. They have written more stories, covered more events, taught more classes, run more organizations and probably make more money than I ever have. However, when they really do need something, I’m thrilled to death when they show up in a chat or an email

A former student who is in her 40s sent me an email a few weeks back, asking if I’d support her effort to take a job at a big-name university. She has a doctorate, advising credentials that are amazing, a record as an elected public official and a lot more, so she needs me in the same way a Kardashian needs more publicity. However, I told her I was more than happy to do whatever she needed: Serve as a reference, write a letter or drive somewhere and talk to those people about why they’d be stupid not to hire her.

Another student got in touch a few years back when a source was threatening to sue him. I found the threat ridiculous and that his employer wasn’t doing more to support this kid, so I dug around and found some legal help that not only got the source to back off, but pushed the media outlet to leave the story alone.

I’ve refinished furniture for them as wedding gifts. I’ve seen their kids grow up in pictures and videos they post on social media. I’ve offered them condolences and heartfelt messages when they lose a parent or a loved one.

I’ve bought T-shirts and doodads from students who have started their own businesses. I’ve bought Girl Scout cookies from the children of former students, only pausing to think, “How in the hell are you old enough to have a kid who’s a Girl Scout?” (No matter how old they get or how esteemed they are, my students are eternally trapped in my mind’s eye somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, showing up for an 8 a.m. bleary eyed and likely hungover.)

I’ve lit holy candles in my church for students recovering from cancer. I’ve prayed for all of them at one time or another, just because I figured they needed it.

Before we part company any time we connect, I always try to remember to let them know, “If you ever need me, you know I’m here for you, right?” I mean it every time and I know I’m not the only professor who feels this way.

If there’s one thing I hope they all know, it’s that the answer to this particular question should always be “Yes.”