September 28, 2007

Tips for better writing

My first editor reminded me of some of these great quotes to help guide our students to better writing.

Arthur Quiller-Couch (among others)
“Murder your darlings.”

Samuel Johnson
“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Elmore Leonard
“If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”

September 27, 2007

Don't know much about history...

I constantly tell my students that context is everything in a good story. That means -- to me -- a decent knowledge of history and civics. They should also know where to look to see if there is an historic link to a story. (I recommend The History Channel.)

This reporter would so fail my course:
On the scene with Mary Beth


September 17, 2007

Constitution Day -- The Holiday Nobody Has Heard of.

The following item is from Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute.

I was stunned about how few of my 303 and 370 knew even three of the components of the First Amendment. Granted the money for public schools to educate students about the Constitution did not come in until many of these college students had graduated but still....

These are journalism students and should know the First Amendment inside out by their final years in college.

Screed aside, let's get to the reason for posting this.

Those of you who have freshman and sophomores might want to use this week to see just how many of your students know the basics of the Constitution -- especially the First Amendment.

It is too bad that Mason's Birthday (Dec. 5) and the ratification of the Bill of Rights (Dec. 15) are so close to finals. The convergence of those important days are what might be called "a learning opportunity" but by then the learning is supposed to be over for the term. :)

Anyway, look this over and weep.

Today is "Constitution Day."

By federal law, every school that receives federal funds are supposed to teach about Constitution Day and the Constitution. But a new Knight Foundation survey shows most kids are clueless about it. Pity, because the kids are not only clueless about Constitution Day, they are clueless about the Constitution. But then again, as you read the poll results, you will see their teachers and parents do not see the value of a free press or free speech either.

The survey found that one-third of the teachers surveyed strongly or mildly agreed with the statement, "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Even more kids -- 45 percent -- agreed that the First Amendment goes too far.

Thirty percent of teachers and 30 percent of students agreed with the statement that "the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants."

Here are some of the results from high school students:

Based on your own feelings about the First Amendment, please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

2004 2006
Strongly agree 12% 18%
Mildly agree 23% 27%
Mildly disagree 19% 16%
Strongly disagree 25% 21%
Don't Know 21% 19%

Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount of freedom the press has about right?

2004 2006
Too much freedom 32% 30%
Too little freedom 10% 11%
About right 37% 41%
Don't know 21% 18%

Take a look at these results from the high school faculty survey, which asked teachers to agree or disagree with the following statements:

Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive.

2004 2006
Strongly agree 28% 35%
Mildly agree 30% 29%
Mildly disagree 19% 19%
Strongly disagree 21% 15%
Don't know 2% 2%

Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.

2004 2006
Strongly agree 53% 57%
Mildly agree 27% 22%
Mildly disagree 12% 13%
Strongly disagree 6% 7%
Don't know 2% 1%

High school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities.

2004 2006
Strongly agree 13% 13%
Mildly agree 26% 27%
Mildly disagree 27% 28%
Strongly disagree 33% 31%
Don't know 1% 1%

According to a press release from the Knight Foundation:

Three years after a new federal law took effect requiring schools to educate all students about the Constitution and the First Amendment, a majority -- 55 percent of U.S. students – aren’t even aware that Constitution Day exists.

Constitution Day was recognized for the first time in schools in 2005, shortly after the largest survey ever done of high school students, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Future of the First Amendment, showed that nearly three-fourths of them either did not know how they felt about the First Amendment or took it for granted.

Very few can name the five freedoms of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Constitution Day became federal law in December 2004 with the passage of an amendment introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). The act mandates that all schools receiving federal funding teach about the Constitution every year on Sept. 17.

September 15, 2007

Good and Bad Job Seeking

Here are some tips on job hunting from a colleague in Shanghai.

You might want to consider passing these on to your students.

September 14, 2007

The Beloit Mindset list: Well worth a look!

For those of you who have not yet seen this…

This is one of the best ways to wrap your mind around what our students DON’T know without pasing any value judgments.

Be sure to look at years past as well to see what your juniors and seniors know or don't know.


Most of the students entering College this fall, members of the Class of 2011, were born in 1989. For them, Alvin Ailey, Andrei Sakharov, Huey Newton, Emperor Hirohito, Ted Bundy, Abbie Hoffman, and Don the Beachcomber have always been dead.

  1. What Berlin wall?
  2. Humvees, minus the artillery, have always been available to the public.
  3. Rush Limbaugh and the “Dittoheads” have always been lambasting liberals.
  4. They never “rolled down” a car window.
  5. Michael Moore has always been angry and funny.
  6. They may confuse the Keating Five with a rock group.
  7. They have grown up with bottled water.
  8. General Motors has always been working on an electric car.
  9. Nelson Mandela has always been free and a force in South Africa.
  10. Pete Rose has never played baseball.
  11. Rap music has always been mainstream.
  12. Religious leaders have always been telling politicians what to do, or else!
  13. “Off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone.
  14. Music has always been “unplugged.”
  15. Russia has always had a multi-party political system.
  16. Women have always been police chiefs in major cities.
  17. They were born the year Harvard Law Review Editor Barack Obama announced he might run for office some day.
  18. The NBA season has always gone on and on and on and on.
  19. Classmates could include Michelle Wie, Jordin Sparks, and Bart Simpson.
  20. Half of them may have been members of the Baby-sitters Club.
  21. Eastern Airlines has never “earned their wings” in their lifetime.
  22. No one has ever been able to sit down comfortably to a meal of “liver with some fava beans and nice Chianti.”
  23. Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears and has always employed more workers than GM.
  24. Being “lame” has to do with being dumb or inarticulate, not disabled.
  25. Wolf Blitzer has always been serving up the news on CNN.
  26. Katie Couric has always had screen cred.
  27. Al Gore has always been running for president or thinking about it.
  28. They never found a prize in a Coca-Cola “MagiCan.”
  29. They were too young to understand Judas Priest’s subliminal messages.
  30. When all else fails, the Prozac defense has always been a possibility.
  31. Multigrain chips have always provided healthful junk food.
  32. They grew up in Wayne’s World.
  33. U2 has always been more than a spy plane.
  34. They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as “The Joker.”
  35. Stadiums, rock tours and sporting events have always had corporate names.
  36. American rock groups have always appeared in Moscow.
  37. Commercial product placements have been the norm in films and on TV.
  38. On Parents’ Day on campus, their folks could be mixing it up with Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz with daughter Zöe, or Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford with son Cody.
  39. Fox has always been a major network.
  40. They drove their parents crazy with the Beavis and Butt-Head laugh.
  41. The “Blue Man Group” has always been everywhere.
  42. Women’s studies majors have always been offered on campus.
  43. Being a latchkey kid has never been a big deal.
  44. Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time.
  45. They learned about JFK from Oliver Stone and Malcolm X from Spike Lee.
  46. Most phone calls have never been private.
  47. High definition television has always been available.
  48. Microbreweries have always been ubiquitous.
  49. Virtual reality has always been available when the real thing failed.
  50. Smoking has never been allowed in public spaces in France.
  51. China has always been more interested in making money than in reeducation.
  52. Time has always worked with Warner.
  53. Tiananmen Square is a 2008 Olympics venue, not the scene of a massacre.
  54. The purchase of ivory has always been banned.
  55. MTV has never featured music videos.
  56. The space program has never really caught their attention except in disasters.
  57. Jerry Springer has always been lowering the level of discourse on TV.
  58. They get much more information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than from the newspaper.
  59. They’re always texting 1 n other.
  60. They will encounter roughly equal numbers of female and male professors in the classroom.
  61. They never saw Johnny Carson live on television.
  62. They have no idea who Rusty Jones was or why he said “goodbye to rusty cars.”
  63. Avatars have nothing to do with Hindu deities.
  64. Chavez has nothing to do with iceberg lettuce and everything to do with oil.
  65. Illinois has been trying to ban smoking since the year they were born.
  66. The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born.
  67. Chronic fatigue syndrome has always been debilitating and controversial.
  68. Burma has always been Myanmar.
  69. Dilbert has always been ridiculing cubicle culture.
  70. Food packaging has always included nutritional labeling.

September 12, 2007

Story ideas on sports and signals

As usual Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute has some great ideas for stories. Today he looks at sports and signal stealing.

This story can work any time of the year but works best for football and baseball.

I bet there are a few students who would like to know more about how signals are used and (possbily) stolen. Feature story for the Broadside or GMU Cable?

Here is Al's column:

Ethics, good journalism, and good business

This is an interesting article out of Taiwan.

Lessons in ethics and ethical behavior are not just for the Americans.

Let us not forget that Taiwan and Hong Kong are the only two Chinese speaking entities that have free and independent media. (And that Taiwan is the only Chinese speaking democracy in the world.)

I know a number of Taiwanese journalists and they are committed to improving their craft. They just need some help. After all, even as Eastern Europe was throwing off the dictatorships imposed by the Soviet Union, Taiwan was slowly and peacefully moving away from dictatorship to democracy.

Too bad no one noticed it when it happened. There were only two foreign correspondents based in Taiwan at the time and I was one of them. I could not get any US publication excited about the changes taking place in Taiwan.

But that is another issue for another discussion.

September 11, 2007

Let's Hear it for the Hams

I give my students assignents that are bit of the wall. One is "What a day/week/month" that is designed to get them thinking aobut days/weeks/months that commemorate products or causes.

Another is "World", which is designed to get them thinking about how they are connected to the world in unusual ways.

Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute provided the following tip.


Saturday, Sept. 15, is Amateur Radio Awareness Day.

Journalists really should be aware of what Amateur Radio operators, or Hams, do during emergencies.I asked Al's Morning Meeting reader Allen G Pitts, (radio call sign W1AGP) to help me with this idea. Allen is the Media & PR manager of The National Association for Amateur Radio.

He wrote to me:
In the strange silence immediately after a disaster, when the noise finally stops, it is often ham radio operators who are first to have communications, provide damage assessment and share the status of their communities. Because Amateur Radio operators can either use a shared infrastructure (the ham equivalent of a cell phone tower) or just “go direct” and talk to each other without anything between them but air, Amateur Radio has capabilities beyond phones and Internet systems. There are no choke points which can overload or fail. In an ever-shortening news cycle, when you want to get correct information quickly, accurately and directly from the scene, Amateur Radio has repeatedly been the initial means by which early reports are shared. Later, as other systems are repaired and come back up, Amateur Radio usually shifts and becomes the means by which victims notify families of their status. Hams call this “health and welfare traffic.” While other systems are often still overloaded with emergency response messages, hams serve the victims directly by passing messages around the country on behalf of victims. In addition, they provide the emergency communications for other responders. The Red Cross, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Salvation Army, National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service and many other organizations have formal relations with ARES to provide Amateur Radio communications in a crisis because they know it works. Hams are the people behind the curtain that make the “heroes” look good.

He is right. In the days after Katrina, I listened to Hams online as they passed along vital information for the National Weather Service.

Allen says that during a disaster, media representatives sometimes use Amateur Radio as a source of information and news stories about conditions in the affected region. Just last week, Hams played a role in relaying information about floods in Minnesota. Hams were also very active in reporting damage from Hurricane Felix. In times of emergency, this is the page I go to to find Hams' broadcasting online. Hams played a role in these emergencies, Allen says:
Earthquake in Hawaii -- 2006
Flooding in Northeastern States -- 2006
Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita -- 2005
Wildfires in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico -- 2005
Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- 2004
Tsunami in Asia -- 2004
Earthquake in Central California -- 2003
Hurricane Isabel -- 2003
Northeast Blackout -- 2003
Shuttle Columbia Recovery Effort -- 2003
Wildfires in Colorado -- 2002
Flooding in Kentucky -- 2002
World Trade Center, Pentagon and Western Pennsylvania Terrorist Attacks -- 2001
Tropical Storm Allison -- 2001
Fires in Los Alamos, New Mexico -- 2000
Hurricane Floyd -- 1999
Flooding in Texas -- 1998
Hurricane Georges -- 1998
"500-Year Flood" in N.D. and Minn. -- 1997
Western U.S. Floods -- 1997
Hurricane Fran -- 1996
TWA Plane Crash -- 1996
Oklahoma City Bombing -- 1995
Why are they called "Hams?" The word used to be a slam from commercial and government radio signal operators, but over time the meaning was lost. Click here for background.How Can Journalists Tap into Hams' 'Expertise and Connections? There are rules as Allen explains:

Many Amateur Radio operators ("hams") are willing to provide interviews with reporters concerning information and operations from the disaster site. In addition, reporters may wish to develop stories on Amateur Radio's role in disaster relief -- handling health and welfare traffic out of the site, for example. Most local emergency services groups or clubs will have public information officers who will help you in this.

However, under federal law, Amateur Radio may not be used for active news gathering or program production purposes. For example, it would not be legal for a reporter to use Amateur Radio in a professional capacity to interview someone in another location. This is spelled out in Part 97.113(b), Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Amateur Radio operators are permitted to assist news media representatives in gathering information to be relayed to the public from areas where normal communication has been disrupted, particularly when the information involves the safety or life of individuals or the immediate protection of property and no other channels of communication are available.

The operator may ask questions of, or relay media questions to, Amateur Radio operators in the area. The responses may be electronically recorded by media representatives. However, Amateur Radio must not be used to assist the news media in gathering information when telephones or other commercial means of communication are available.

The news media may of course monitor any Amateur Radio transmissions, but recording and rebroadcast under certain conditions (in or from war zones, for example) may not be legal or prudent. Under no circumstances may Amateur Radio operators retransmit commercial radio and television broadcasts.

An Idea: Get Local

If you really wanted to connect with Hams, you might find space in your building for the Hams to meet and/or practice. How valuable would it be to have a base of operations near your newsroom in a time of emergency? TV and radio stations should think about whether it would make sense to provide space on their transmission towers for Ham antennas.

You can click here to find local ham radio clubs

September 5, 2007

VA contributions as reported to the FEC

Use this page at the FEC to get contribution information from the state of Virginia

Updated FEC page

Below is the URL for the updated FEC site for the presidential campaing contributions.

This is a useful site for political reporting.


Know your story limits before getting started

Tom Hallman Jr.

Imagine you’re remodeling your kitchen. You look through magazines and examine top-of-the line appliances that you know will look perfect. Then, the contractor shows up and asks about your budget. If you have $100,000, no problem.

But what if you have just $10,000?

That’s the way it is when we approach stories. How long can I make this story? It’s a question I ask my editors, not because I’m looking to always get 50 inches. The answer helps me determine what approach I’m going to take.

Writing is about choices. If your editor says you have 100 inches, the options are unlimited. But if you get 20 or less, then you have to start cutting. And it’s best to start thinking about those cuts when you approach the story, not when you’re at the computer trying to wring 10 inches out of what you consider a masterpiece.

The mantra in narrative writing is to show, don’t tell. But scenes that allow the reader to be with the character, to live out the moment, take space. If you have 20 inches, there’s no way you can pull off a multiple-scene story.

That’s where writers new to narrative often get into trouble. They open with a terrific scene but run out of space to develop the story. It would be better to make structural choices at the outset because it will guide your reporting.

Let me give you an example. This is the opening of my four-part series, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask.” Each story was about 80 inches.

The boy sits on the living room sofa, lost in his thoughts and stroking the family cat with his fragile hands. His younger brother and sister sit on the floor, chattering and playing cards. But Sam is overcome by an urge to be alone. He lifts the cat off his lap, ignoring a plaintive meow, and silently stands, tottering unsteadily as his thin frame rises in the afternoon light.

He threads his way toward the kitchen, where his mother bends over the sink, washing vegetables for supper. Most 14-year-old boys whirl through a room, slapping door jambs like backboards and dodging around furniture like imaginary halfbacks. But this boy, a 5-foot, 83-pound waif, has learned never to draw attention to himself. He moves like smoke.

He stops in the door frame leading to the kitchen and melts into the late-afternoon shadows.

Dim light is a refuge.

He watches his mother, humming as she runs water over lettuce. The boy clears his throat and says he’s not hungry. His mother sighs with worry and turns, not bothering to turn off the water or dry her hands. The boy knows she’s studying him, running her eyes over his bony arms and the way he wearily props himself against the door frame.

She’s been watching him like this since he left the hospital.

Contrast that with the opening of this recent story:

What they get is a bag of soil, a few flowers and maybe a couple of plants thrown in for good measure. Considering all they’re up against, that doesn’t seem nearly enough. But people suffering from depression or other mental illness look for hope where they can find it.

On this day it arrived about 10:30 in the morning when a car pulled up outside a Gladstone home.

Kathy Fredrickson, watching from inside, stepped into a front yard she hadn’t used in years because of a depression so severe that it left her unable to deal with people. She smiled and waited for the driver, who walked through the gate with an armload of lilacs and petunias.

Treating a mental illness can be challenging. Medication and counseling aren’t always enough.

How a person copes with the world is as important as what’s going on in their head, and counselors are always looking for ways to bring patients out of the shadows. Last month, a Portland group that helps those with mental illness decided to give people plants and flowers. By nurturing them — literally getting in touch with the life cycle — the theory goes, people grappling with mental illness might also heal parts of themselves.

In that opening, I do far more telling than showing. The story was about 22 inches. And the story has a nut graph that allows me to tell the reader what the theme of the story is about. The best narrative stories don’t have nut graphs. The nut graph is the story itself.

But in short pieces, writers don’t have that luxury. A shorter story, by the way, doesn’t lack the power to reach readers. I got many calls and letters on the story about flowers.

The Quill
September 2007

September 4, 2007

Grandparents and story ideas

The Census Bureau always comes up with interesting numbers.
Here are some for Grandparents Day

Grandparents Day 2007: Sept. 9

Grandparents Day was the brainchild of Marian McQuade of Fayette County, W.Va., who hoped that such an observance might persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage of their grandparents. The first presidential proclamation was issued in 1978 — and one has been issued each year since — designating the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day.

In honor of our nation’s grandparents, the Census Bureau presents an array of data about these unsung role models and caregivers.

5.7 million
The number of grandparents whose grandchildren younger than 18 live with them. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Grandparents as Caregivers

2.5 million
The number of grandparents responsible for most of the basic needs (i.e., food, shelter, clothing) of one or more of the grandchildren who live with them. These grandparents represent about 43 percent of all grandparents whose grandchildren live with them. Of these caregivers, 1.5 million are grandmothers, and 915,000 are grandfathers. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

1.7 million
The number of grandparent-caregivers who are married. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

1.4 million
The number of grandparents who are in the labor force and also responsible for most of the basic needs of their grandchildren. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Number of grandparents responsible for caring for their grandchildren for at least the past five years. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Number of grandparents whose income is below the poverty level and who are caring for their grandchildren. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Number of grandparents with a disability who are caring for their grandchildren.
(Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Number of grandparents who speak a language other than English and who are responsible for caring for their grandchildren. Of this number, 217,000 speak English very well. (Source:
2005 American Community Survey)

Median income for families with grandparent-caregiver householders. If a parent of the grandchildren was not present, the median dropped to $30,246.
(Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Percentage of grandparents who care for their grandchildren and who live in an owner-occupied home. (Source: 2005 American Community Survey)

Among preschoolers with employed mothers, the percentage regularly cared for by their grandparent during the hours their mom works.


5.7 million
The number of children living with a grandparent; these children comprise 8 percent of all children in the United States. The majority of these children, 3.7 million, live in the grandparent’s home. <>

2.1 million
The number of children who live with both a grandmother and a grandfather. <>

September 3, 2007

Pew Trust Surveys and Reports

The following items highlight new content added to The Pew Trusts' Web site this week.

To see more go to

Public opinion and polls

Poll: Black Enthusiasm for Clinton and Obama Leaves Little Room for Edwards (08/31/2007) The strong support for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among black voters (and, for Clinton, among liberal Democratic and lower income white voters) may help explain the relatively limited appeal of John Edwards.

Along the Iraq-Vietnam Parallel(08/31/2007) Comparison of public opinion polls during the Vietnam conflict and the war in Iraq.

The practice of journalism

News Interest Index: Michael Vick Case Draws Large Audience (08/31/2007) News Interest Index for the week of August 19-24.