Monthly Archives: January 2009

Jan. 30 critique

Correction: We flipped (inverted) at least two photos in the photo spread on page 8. The snowman in the apron is obviously inverted because the text on the apron reads backward. The close-up of Catino Davis shows his arm on the opposite side in the online slideshow, so not sure which version is correct. Inverting photos is a big no-no in journalism. I’m sure this was unintentional, but we need to run a correction for Monday. 

sparkler Sparkly awesomeness…

… Snow Day package!!!! Brava to Ms. Heidi Staggs for her trudging through the snow to get these fun and newsy shots! We rarely have classes canceled on this campus due to snow. That, in itself, is news. But when students take it upon themselves to frolic and play together, we need to capture that. That’s what this photo spread does.  Excellent job with the headline design, as well. The front page looks great. More fun features like this, please!

… great photos by Amanda and a newsy story by Aliya of Shirley Jones’s performance!  Amanda’s photos do a wonderful job capturing Jones’s emotion and energy. The color in the photos is lovely. The best part of Aliya’s story is the ample background info she weaves throughout. Great context for students who may be too young to understand her celebrity.

… another solid contribution by Melissa Morris! In her second effort, she gives readers an engaging and concise story on the University Honors Journal. Her lede is creative and her quotes are strong. Keep up the good work!

,,, Nick’s story on the Blue Crew! His piece goes beyond the typical organizational meeting announcement. He gets great comments from officials about the nature of school spirit and what it means, in real terms, to the campus community. Great job, Nick!


Light a fire under…

… headlines. We use the verb “to face” in both sports headlines today. Editors, be sure to vary headline wording and type size on every page.

… online video. There was much discussion on Wednesday of getting online video of snow day action. We lost valuable daylight waiting for a snowball fight at Wolfe Field. Yet, today there is no video. The action and sounds of snow frolicking make for wonderful feature opportunities. We missed a big opportunity by  not capturing it.

idea-bulb-neon-300px What if…

… we take your wildest fantasies (well, PG rated) and turn them into story ideas?!

Ever wanted to climb Mt. Everest? Is there someone on our campus who climbs mountains we could profile?

Ever wanted to be a supermodel? Are there fashion business majors or students paying their way through school by modeling?

Ever wanted to be a millionaire? Do we have any lottery winners among our students? Are any of our students or faculty running million-dollar businesses?

Ever wanted to meet a celebrity? Which of our students have ties to fame? Do we have kinfolk of celebrities around here?

My point is, anything that gets you excited and imaginging has great potential for story ideas. Merv and Marcy and I consider journalism to be the most fun job we have had in our lives. We want doing journalism to be fun for you, too.

Take advantage of your role as journalists to explore some of the wilder corners of your imagination!


Zealous News Hound Award Winners! you didn’t even know that this award existed, you’re in good company because Merv and I  just made it up this evening. But we decided it needed to be awarded to Nick Hedrick and Heidi Staggs!

These two intrepid journalists were in the newsroom for hours Wednesday, brainstorming stories, reporting and generally being kick-ass journalists. Heidi, in particular, tromped out into the snow at least twice to capture photos and stories from students out celebrating (and suffering) in the snow day. Heidi had the wet trousers and shoes to prove her devotion.

For spending the day gathering the scoop and suffering the consequences, we award each of them $25.

Note that the advisers are not afraid to splash around a wee bit of cash for efforts above and beyond the call of duty. If you feel that someone on our staff deserves special recognition for performance beyond their job description, let either Merv or me know. We love hearing stories of dedication and boldness.


Jan. 28 critique

sparkler Sparkly awesomeness…

… LOVING the ‘White Winter’ story! Aliya’s story does a great job getting specific about the amount of effort involved with clearing away so much snow. She also highlights the process by which emergency officials declare conditions unsafe.  Great story! Also, in terms of design, the font works and the photo offers a nice canvas for the story text. You were smart to run the text larger and bolder than normal, to make it readable. This is a smart innovative approach that pays off. Wonderful, wonderful!

… fabulous job by Aliya localizing the Miss America story! This is exactly how localizing brings home a national issue to our community! Aliya does a great job incorporating some biographical info about Katie Stam, Miss Indiana and Miss America, while still keeping the story about our local folks responding to the story. Also, great choice of AP photo. Fantastic job!

… stronger front page design! This front does a much better job than the last issue of grading the news. We have the dominant weather package, the banner localized story and then, appropriately, the two other stories. The design is much easier for the eye to track. Big improvement!

… two strong stories by Nick!  His United Way piece is super-readable and has a fantastic kicker quote at the end. But more impressive is his NASA scholarships piece, which takes a very inventive approach by expounding on a film that his source described. It makes an otherwise dry, numbers-heavy story a pleasure to read!  Great job, Nick!

… welcome to Greg Stowers on the Opinions page! His column on the current state of the world and economy is nicely written. Glad to have you aboard!


Light a fire under…

… clarity.  The CSI story uses the word “obvious” in the lede. This is a problematic word for news because instead of pointing out that something is “obvious,” we should just explain what was obvious about it.  In other words, how did people know the obvious thing? Be descriptive and specific.  Also, the paraphrase of Crystle Hall’s quote (the 4th graf) was very confusing. Editors need to be sure to clarify wording and meaning with reporters.

… filling empty space. The ‘White Winter’ headline is covering up the most visually interesting part of the photo. It would have worked better at the top of the photo, in the black sky. Remember that headlines over photos need to not obscure the most interesting parts of the photo.

… updating headlines. The Miss America headline announces 4-day-old news. We needed to update it. For example, “Miss America has close ISU ties,” or some such. Make sure we don’t “announce” news people already know.

idea-bulb-neon-300px What if…

… we remember the words of Ira Glass?

“Most journalism trades in stories so dull and familiar that it makes the world smaller and stupider than it really is. Too many journalists leave the joy out of their stories. Most newspapers document a world that is meaner than it really is. — Ira Glass, host of “The American Life,” National Public Radio

With the snowfall and snowball fights and general slippery icy fun going on today, I think it’s worth remembering that news is too often dry and dull and serious.  But remember that the ultimate job of a newspaper is to accurately reflect the community it covers. That means reflecting the fun, the joy, the play, the whimsy, the surprise of life, too.

So remember when we brainstorm story ideas to think of places where people are laughing, celebrating, playing, imagining and creating.  These parts of daily life are every bit as important — more so, I would argue — as meetings, budgets, tragedies, accidents, speeches and the like.

Such stories lend themselves to description, video, ambient sound and fun design. They are also always popular among readers. Such stories get saved, passed around and shared. So make our paper reflect a world that’s as joyous and delightful as our community experiences it.

Jan. 26 critique

sparkler Sparkly awesomeness…

… follow-up on the flood! This is the kind of story that normally fades into forgottenness after a few weeks. It’s so great that we’re revisiting those affected by it. Aliya does a great job telling the story of Charrissa Antrobus and her young son. This is the kind of follow-up that is so important because journalists are able to keep big issues in the public’s mind.

match-for-smoking-page Light a fire under…

… using your resources wisely.  There are four sports stories in today’s paper and only five on every other newsy topic. More problematic, of the five news stories in this issue, two of them should most definitely have held for more reporting.

For example, in my last critique, I suggested that it’s too late to really capture the news of ISU folks who attended the Inauguration, but that if we couldn’t do that story in a timely way, we should do it in a big, splashy way for Black History Month. Instead, we have a one-source story — albeit a well-written one-source story — on an Inauguration attendee.

My guess is that Prof. Howard-Hamilton was simply the first to call us back and, thus, the one we interviewed. Let me reiterate that we should never, NEVER have a one-source story. Ever. Even profiles need the input of those who know that person to add context and depth to the person’s  story.

We still need to do a piece on people who attended the Inauguration. Black History Month seems the most appropriate way to frame that story. Let’s include their own photos of the experience and as much design innovation as we can muster.

Now, the parking story, again, fails to address what exactly the parking problems are that need solutions. We say SGA is going to “look into” the issue. But SGA has no authority over parking. So what is the aim of “looking into” parking? Will they press administrators for a particular solution? Is there anything new about the parking situation that hasn’t already been studied or complained about since faculty were double-parking their horse-drawn buggies? (I exaggerate, but you get the idea.) What, exactly, is the problem? And what is SGA doing that hasn’t already been done a million times?

… a feature lede on front page sports. Women’s basketball holding firm at the top of the MVC standings is a cool story. But not everyone will read a game story heavy on play details and scores. Instead, let’s talk about how the women got to where they are. How are the fans feeling about their team right now? How are the players coping with the pressure to stay on top?

We have a chance to draw in new fans for these teams, but we need to appeal to a broader readership than just the typical game story reader. Those who care probably caught the game on TV or checked box scores this weekend. Those readers will appreciate a fresh approach, too.

… grading the news. The key problem with our front page design today is that it’s difficult to tell which secondary story (after women’s b-ball) is the most important. The headlines are all the same size. The reader has a hard time knowing where to glance second or third. We need to vary the headline weight according to the news value of each story. We also have a river of white space dividing the left and right sides of the page, for no apparent reason.

idea-bulb-neon-300px What if…

… we do a cool Super Bowl story?

Can sports and news get together to take a feature approach to this time-honored event? I’d like to “see” what people do on this day. I want to feel like part of the celebration. Can we ride along with a pizza delivery person? Can we hang behind the counter at BW3’s? Can we get the skinny on betting on the game? Can we hang out at the liquor store to monitor beer and keg sales the day before — getting comments and color from fans? Are there safety or liability issues with alcohol at parties? Are there alternative ways to spend the day if you’re not a fan?

Similarly, NASCAR starts up, I’m told, in about a week. How about an inside look at NASCAR culture on this campus? The gear people wear, the Web sites they visit, the trips they make to Indy and other tracks, etc. Sounds like a cool story. Are there people on campus who get jobs in the racing industry? Engineers or mechanics or business folks or sports folks?

Finally, Miss Indiana, who apparently knows a lot of folks on our campus, is now Miss USA. She seems to be the first Miss Indiana to win the title. Have people here spoken to her? Might be a cool story.

Jan. 23 critique

sparkler Sparkly awesomeness…

… two great stories by Heidi Staggs! The e-mail virus story and the ‘March On’ campaign story are both well-reported and well-written. Her two ledes are engaging and concise. Her reporting on the fundraising campaign includes a good breakdown of how funds will be spent. Great job, Heidi!

… nice shot from Ben of the barefoot Coach McKenna! Aliya’s story also does a good job providing context for the role that coaches are playing in promoting the organization.

… good use of breakouts! The e-mail virus story and Nick’s United Way story are both enhanced by the use of breakout images. These little touches make a big difference in the look of the front page! Also, I loved the organization logos on the jump to Nick’s story!

… more concise Not-So-News! The shrunken subhead works to keep the rail tight and newsy. Good job.

match-for-smoking-page Light a fire under…

… page 6 sports heads. They’re still stopping a bit short of their allotted space. They need to fill it.

… body text font. It’s a bit lightweight. Times is denser and heavier, and thus easier to read. I would suggest finding a more weighty font.

… timeliness. The McKenna story is from Wednesday. That ought to bump it inside.  In the meantime, we still haven’t followed up on the Inauguration’s impact on ISU’s black community. We also haven’t chased down any reader-provided images. It’s getting to be an old story. We have to feel the pressure of timeliness and act on it. You can’t spell “news” without NEW.

… context and data! The most obvious question raised by the headline, “E-mail virus hits campus computers,” is: How many got the virus? The story does not answer that question. Editors must do a better job of catching such  obvious holes. Always be sure to answer the question the headline presents in the first three grafs of a story.

… critical thinking. The Samaritan’s Feet organization, according to our breakout, proselytizes to shoe recipients as part of its ministry. The story should have made that clear. In other words, the shoes aren’t “free.” They come with the agreement that the shoes begin “a new walk of faith.”

… photo placement. Coach McKenna is what photogs would call “walking off the page.” In other words, he appears to be in motion or focused on space that is outside of the page.  Instead, because he’s in motion leftward, we should position the picture on the right. If he were walking or looking in the other direction, rightward, you’d put the picture on the left.  The rule is, photo subjects should appear to be moving or looking into the center of the page.

idea-bulb-neon-300px What if…

… we turn the Inauguration into an opportunity for Black History Month? If we have missed the timely aspect of the story, let’s go big instead. Are there compelling profiles of civil rights activists, black students, faculty or others that may illustrate the historic nature of Obama’s presidency?

How can we capitalize on this moment in a way that tells some fascinating stories and goes deeper than the obvious?

Jan. 21 critique — Inauguration Edition



Sparkly awesomeness…

… DESIGN! I love how thoughtful this design looks! The commemorative header and the flag in the masthead are genius! The headline and subhead really reflect how the reader will take in the information on the page. The photo of Obama is arguably the definitive moment that people will remember from the event. You ran the photo large enough to make an impact above the fold. Also, nice Campus Eye display on page 10. The online video of election night was an excellent Web extra, as well. Fantastic effort by everyone who planned this presentation!

… LOCALIZING! Nick and Melissa’s story’s lede does a good job getting local context into the national story. Also, Michael’s local reaction to the Kennedy story is a great contribution. Great work!

… MLK ‘Day On’ story! Aliya has a fantastic anecdotal lede and a wonderful nut graf that gives local context to the number of people volunteering on Monday. Wonderful job!

… a very strong Opinions page! The staff editorial is nicely written — capturing, in my opinion, the spirit of the moment.  Spencer’s piece on the pressing problems Obama faces makes good use of survey data. And Michael Baum’s new column is a refreshing “meta” view of opinions. Nicely done!

… two newsy sports pages. Page 7, in particular, has a strong visual design and solid game/meet coverage.

… historical context! I love Heidi’s page 10 piece on the Debs historian. She makes a smart connection between the current “change” theme and those of the past. Very interesting! A nice part of the overall coverage. Good job, Heidi!

match-for-smoking-page Light a fire under

… the black experience.  The aspect of Obama’s inauguration that is noticeably absent from our coverage is the emotional reaction of many black students and faculty to the historic event. Our Campus Eye mugs are all of white folks. We did not attend the viewing party at the African-American Culture Center.  We had no reaction from the local NAACP or former Civil Rights Movement leaders.

Even our MLK service day story featured a photo of a white student. We have to make an effort to convey the different ways this time in our history is perceived and valued by different members of our community. We should follow-up on this aspect of the story.

… reader contributions. What became of our pleas for photos and stories from the event? Again, we should follow-up and get these into the paper ASAP.

… photos! We had NO local photos of people watching/experiencing the swearing-in. Not one. That is inexcusable, in my opinion. We needed faces and emotion reacting to this important time. Also, Web video of people watching and reacting to the swearing-in would have been a nice inclusion.

Also, the front page photo is oddly cropped, in my opinion. It works above the fold, but it dies below the fold. The AP shot actually includes Michelle, Malia and Sasha, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts (see the examples in front of Merv’s office). The way we cropped it actually crops out a lot of interesting emotion. It’s an example of when to let the best photo dictate the page design. It should never be the other way around. A horizontal shot of the family and Roberts would have been a stronger shot than Obama alone, I think. Let me know your thoughts.

… omitting minutiae. Our inauguration story included a lot of detail of the program. It introduced local context in the lede, but doesn’t come right back to it. Instead, it should have woven in local reaction in about the third graf and throughout.

… putting things in perspective. We did a great job getting local reaction to the Ted Kennedy story. However, I would argue that the story wasn’t that big a deal in the end. By the time we published, he was out of danger. The incident itself had little to no actual impact locally. I don’t think it merits front-page treatment or the length we devoted to it. That space would have been better used to talk to more students — especially African-American ones.

idea-bulb-neon-300px What if…

… we do some cool design for reader-submitted Inauguration stuff? I’m thinking like scrapbook-style or program-looking booklet style or something really innovative and fun.  And then maybe we can do an interactive version of that design on the Web?

Let’s think about how we can send people online for more from our readers.

… we work on our Web video quality a bit? I noticed that Casino Night video had some problems. We need to use a light in room settings to make people more visible on screen. The people interviewed are in the shadows. Also, be sure that videographers get shots of faces. There are far too many shots of objects on tables and disembodied hands throwing dice in this video. Finally, be sure that our sound equipment isn’t running too hot, or “in clip” when you are recording audio. The voices on the video sound “tinny,” meaning that the audio levels are maxing out on the equipment. It’s like when you max out your iPod volume when playing it through stereo speakers and the sound gets distorted. These are minor fixes that will improve video quality immensely.

E-mail interviews

It seems that many of our sources comments’ these days come from written e-mails. Two thoughts about this:

  • Remember that phone calls and face-to-face interviews are best for asking follow-up questions, getting emotion, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.  E-mails, for all you know, may be answered by a secretary or someone other than the person you think you’re interviewing. So be careful with this. Always get phone contact info to follow-up and verify information.
  • When we use e-mailed quotes and information, we should note it in the story. For example, “Enrollment has declined slightly,” Bradley said in an e-mail. Or, the event will be Tuesday, according to a press release e-mailed by the Marketing Department.

So, always attempt to speak to sources face-to-face or on the phone when possible. And, when e-mail is the only option, make sure readers know the quotes were e-mailed.

For tips on conducting e-mail interviews, see this great piece from the American Journalism Review.