Tag Archive for communications

Talking Journalism in the Math Building

Old retro typewriter on table on green background

Robert De Niro got lots of attention last May when he told graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts they were screwed.

The verb he used was actually harsher, and followed by the suggestion that they would have done better majoring in law, medicine or nursing. The grads responded with peals of laughter. Perhaps they were acting.

While acting jobs may be scarce, De Niro could easily have been talking to journalism grads. Layoffs in Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere do not bode well for the college student laboring today at media internships or the school paper in hopes of building up some clips and covering city hall for a major daily.

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Outgoing Writing Students Share Tips for Success

One of the challenges of teaching writing classes to college kids is that they all come in with different levels of interest and experience.

Here are three things I do at American University to help smooth the way.AU outside

1 – Before the semester begins, I send out a short survey. I ask my incoming students how much they’ve written outside the classroom, why they’re taking the class (no penalty if it’s simply to fulfill a requirement), and their toughest writing challenges. I find the kids appreciate being asked and are happy to respond.

2 – On opening night, I pitch like a used car salesman. I know most will not go on to writing or communications careers. I tell them to think of their time with me as cross training for whatever field they eventually choose. I point to studies that show employers place high value in employees who are clear and concise. I warn they will hear a lot from me about precision and clarity.

3 – On finals night, I offer a bonus. Sharing a tip for success with my next students earns two free points. Most remember they were afforded this opportunity thanks to the previous class, and include some lesson learned. I’m always surprised by one or two comments on the tip sheet, which you can find (unedited) here on the class blog.

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Has Your College Degree Paid Off?

What's the ROI for your college degree?

What’s the ROI for your college degree?

Statistically speaking, the return on my journalism degree is pretty low. But there’s more to life than statistics. Click here to read more.


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NBC4’s Goff Says Engage Your Audience, Own Your Brand

“Be the CEO of your own career,” Goff told students.

Engaging content, the strategic use of social media, and constant vigilance aimed at building a unique brand are the recipe for success for communicators in today’s on-demand digital society, Washington broadcast journalist Angie Goff told students Thursday at American University.

“Own your brand,” Goff said. “Be the CEO of your own career.”

Goff has branded herself as a “multi-media journalist” for NBC4 Washington, where she anchors on the weekend and reports during the week. She is known for using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to enhance her stories, and is now working more with Pinterest and Google+.

Technology has changed expectations, she said, meaning that consumers are always “looking for an excuse to change the channel.” Moving ahead – for everyone from authors to engineers – requires sound knowledge of communications basics, a working knowledge of the latest tools, and the determination to turn a job into a career.

Thanks to NBC4’s Angie Goff for AU visit.

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Meet Ike Washington: Guilty with an Explanation

Very first draft

Bootlicker began more than a decade ago with a question.

What would anyone do if faced with the choice that confronted young Ike Washington?

There is no perfect answer, and there is no correct answer. There is, however, a novel I’ve launched today that is built on the question and the conversation I hope it will provoke.

The novel began as a short story called “Twisted Pinky.” Classmates in my graduate workshops at Johns Hopkins University encouraged me to expand the piece, one kindly offering that I was “on to something.”

“Twisted Pinky” grew into a novel built on a pivotal event that occurs in 1959. The working title was, “Hard Way Out.”

Ike is a black teenager living in a small town in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement is in full, wild bloom. Racial violence is rampant. One day Ike and a friend sneak off for a beer in the woods.

In the forest, they approach a clearing and hear a man pleading for mercy. Ike freezes at the sight of a Klan lynching led by the local judge. The other teen bolts.

The Klansmen catch Ike and present a startling choice: join the dead man or help the judge win black support so he can advance in state politics. The logic is beyond Ike’s grasp. The man who lynched one black man wants his help appealing to blacks statewide?

But Judge Lander McCauley knows the old ways are coming to an end. Perhaps the lynching was his exclamation point. To maintain his political ascent, he must have black support. And for that, he must have a secret liaison in the black community, someone he can personally train and control. Fate delivered the perfect young man.

Terrified, Ike agrees. An act of brutality ensures there will always be, as the judge puts it, “order in the court.”

One year turns into five, five turn into 10, 10 turn into 20. Ike becomes a power in his own right, U.S. Senator Lander McCauley’s man behind the scenes in every black enclave throughout the state.

Ike’s family has money and respect. The days of forcing him to cooperate are long gone. He and McCauley are the unlikeliest of political allies. By 1992, Ike stands poised to become the first black congressman elected in South Carolina since the Civil War.

But there is the guilt, the ever-present, all consuming guilt, and Ike’s knowledge that he rose to power on the judge’s bloody coattails, and helped the white-robed murderer rise from judge to congressman, and then to United States senator.

The saga of Ike Washington and Lander McCauley is less about race than about choices and character. The book is about guilt and the tricky path to redemption. It will take readers where TV cameras are never invited, to back rooms where decisions are made, futures are decided, and the line between right and wrong is not so easily defined. 

Now that you know the story, how do you judge Ike Washington?

How will the voters judge him when a young reporter reveals his secret just before Election Day?

Most of all, how will Ike judge himself after everyone else has spoken? Can he win the historic election and assume the role of congressman, or will he forever wear the label whispered by his critics? It was this label that became the title:



For more:

The trailer.

An early review.

The Amazon page.








First Love? How ’bout the First Job?

Biggest story as rookie sports reporter: local star wins Wimbledon doubles in 1977

Roughly three months before I walked into my first class at American University in 1972, five men were arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel. Two years later, Richard Nixon would become the first U.S. president to resign.

How could you be a communications major in Washington during Watergate and not wind up a journalist? By junior year, I was features editor of the college paper. As a senior, I interned with The Baltimore Sun’s Washington Bureau. Two weeks after graduation, I landed my first job: high school sports reporter with the Naples (FL) Daily News.

It is to Naples that I will be returning on Sept. 6 to promote my new novel, Bootlicker, at the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA) trade conference.

A lot has happened in the 34 years since I left my first job.

After Naples, I began covering news at the Lakeland Ledger, eventually catching the attention of The Tampa Tribune. In 1985, my work earned me the paper’s coveted Washington bureau, where I stayed until switching to the same job for the Charleston (SC) Post-Courier. All told, I worked more than 25 years for Southern newspapers, bringing a New York perspective to stories about everything from Strom Thurmond to the Confederate flag.

The economic troubles that plague newspapers today grabbed hold of Charleston about 10 years ago, and the execs decided they didn’t need a Washington reporter. I wound up a speechwriter at a federal agency, and later moved on to manage the agency’s web and social media teams. Somewhere in there I also returned to the classroom for a Masters in fiction from Johns Hopkins University.

But I’ve never forgotten that first job or my first boss, Tom Rife. We were a two-man sports staff, which meant doing everything from covering pro football to local tennis, from taking photos (with film cameras) to writing headlines, and from laying out pages to cultivating sources. My biggest story was local star JoAnne Russell’s doubles championship at Wimbledon. She and Helen Gourlay Cawley beat the renowned Chris Evert and Rosie Casals in the first round, and top-ranked Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove in the finals. Wow!

I also remember a fierce argument with the Naples High football coach, who felt the local paper should be more cheerleader, less critic. Later, when I was reporting from Washington, the local congressmen I covered would make the same argument.

More significant was that over the years I became frustrated with writing stories to fit the ever dwindling daily news hole. I wanted more space, and to try building anticipation and developing characters instead of flooding the first two paragraphs with all the news. Why became more important to me than the other 5 Ws.

That’s why I joined the Hopkins program and started writing fiction. Bootlicker is a prequel to my first novel, Bella. Today I also blog regularly about my adventures in self-publishing, and am busy on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.

I can’t imagine how many words I’ve written over the years, but the first were at a small paper in Naples, where I knew no one and no one knew me. I’m grateful they gave me a chance, and hopeful that the few who are still around from those days will have time to visit. I’d like to thank them for setting the foundation that has allowed me to make a living all these years doing what I love most.

What lessons have you carried forward from your first job?

TV Reporter Goff Says Persistency Pays

NBC4 Reporter Angie Goff at American U

When trying to catch the attention of the mainstream media, be persistent without being a pest. Do some homework and be creative. Think about what’s hot, what people are talking about, and find a connection to your product or service.

Take Kim Kardashian. Kim may never surface on your daily radar, but if her divorce is trending off the charts on Twitter and you run a dating site (or perhaps have written a novel about a broken marriage), craft a pitch that links the two.

These were some of the tips that popular NBC4 reporter Angie Goff served up this week to students in the communications class I teach at American University in Washington, D.C. When pitching, she said, don’t overlook the hyper-local sites that many mainstream media outlets have created.

Goff also warned about crossing the line from persistence to peskiness, but advised students heading into public relations to err on the side of perseverance. Most of all, she said, don’t come off like you’re only out for some free advertising.

So how would you pitch that novel about the broken marriage? One idea:

Kim K says she married too soon, and the guy she thought she was marrying turned out to be someone else. In my story, Alexis does the same thing and winds up trapped in an abusive relationship. “Caught” is the story of her escape. May I send you a review copy?

 How have you used trending topics – once known as news stories of the day – to pitch your book?



Delivering the Fundamentals

Once this was state of the art technology.

As I look over the syllabus for the communications class I’m about to begin teaching at American University, it’s evident that technology has forced a change in the curriculum.

No longer can universities send students into the world equipped only to write for print, broadcast or public relations. That’s the way it was not so long ago; students picked a lane and began specializing as soon as possible. And they stayed in their lanes.

Today’s technology has put a messaging arsenal in the hands of communicators, and students expecting to find work better understand tools, strategy and messaging.

Not that we should diminish the importance of fundamentals. Quite the contrary. I will stress precision and clarity this semester. We will work on speed without sacrificing accuracy.  We will drill to ensure that the writing is timely, relevant, and engaging.

At some point I will steer them to this website and others like it, and we will touch on writing for the web, updating online, writing blog posts and crafting video scripts. We will discuss what makes a good headline and a bad cutline.

We will look at associated Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and YouTube pages, and talk about what works and why. Someone will mention good fundamentals, and I’ll smile to myself because I’ll know they’re on the right track.

You can stay up all night perusing all the social media tools now available. Long before dawn, it will be apparent that while the delivery vehicles change, the fundamentals remain the same. And you better get them right. At least that’s my view. What’s yours?

American University Posts Prof Profile on iTunes

American University in Washington, D.C., has staked out turf on iTunes U. Here, Steve talks about the nexus between class, work and self-publishing. Click to see the American University Interview

Dressing Properly for the New Communications Environment

Disciplines as different as writing and rodeo have this in common: the communications environment has changed radically. Global whining is rampant, but will not stop or slow the phenomenon. If success hinges on reaching the masses, you must bulk up your messaging arsenal, whether you write words or rope calves.

There was a time when aspiring journalists were taught print or broadcast and steered into the appropriate lanes. The two didn’t mingle, and the idea of throwing some public relations into the mix was as forbidden as messing with grandma’s secret recipe for Blueberry Yum Yum.

These days, as discussed in this video, college-level communications students are taught to write for print, switch to present tense for broadcast, chunk their copy for online, and how to shoot and add photos and video to their stories. They learn the art of tweeting, and how to stimulate a discussion on Facebook.

They learn all this or pick another field, for expectations are high and it is a buyer’s market in the industry these days.

As I developed the Bella website, I realized the job required many of the skills needed by communications students, self-published authors, and pretty much everyone else trying to get known or make a sale. Specifically, the site incorporates: PR blurbs, video scripts, creative writing, blog posts, photo captions, a personal bio and more.

Of course you need a strategy before you start posting. Hemingway warned us never to mistake motion for action. When the cowboy and his horse burst through the gate, he knows he will have his calf lassoed in 11 seconds. If he’s sharp, the video will be up on his website a few minutes later, with a tweet linking to the post. Later he’ll add words to his blog describing the incredible rush he felt when the rope found its target, and some photos for his Facebook page. When he becomes famous, he’ll write his story, which of course will be available on an e-reader.

Or, maybe not. Maybe he’ll dismount, tip his hat to the crowd, and that’ll be that.

How did you master the new communications environment, or are you still struggling?