Dear Jon from Alaska, F— off.

Jon from Alaska comments on one of my recent columns about my troubles with Iowa’s unemployment office:

“You could get a job. Just a thought.”

First, fuck off, Jon. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Let’s keep it that way.

I can say things like that now. I don’t work for media companies and probably never will. I don’t have to pretend every troll’s eyeballs are sacred to my survival.

So, again, fuck off, Jon from Alaska.

But let’s consider Jon from Alaska’s suggestion that I get a job.

I apply for at least two jobs every week just to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The problem is that between 1990 and 2020, half of all journalism jobs were eliminated by the greedy corporate hustlers and slimy hedge fund operators who systematically sacrificed news coverage in the name of the United States of America’s favorite deadly sin: Greed.

The skills I spent developing since I was 15 years old are no longer in demand.

There are job postings for writers, of course. But what they really want are webmasters with design skills who can turn every story viral and spell most of the words right. The craft I practiced is practically extinct.

There were pretty good signs this was going to happen when I was in college nearly 30 years ago.

The internet was a new and mesmerizing curiosity in 1995, when I was a junior at Drake University. Now even my 72-year-old parents have Facebook and email.

My dad used a computer for the last few years of his career as a printer. He sends texts with GIFs now.

That’s like being born in a well and later living on a space station.

There were signs journalism was doomed before AOL started giving away 500 free dialup hours on compact discs jammed in the mailbox each week.

The movie “Network” seemed like satire in 1976, with poor Howard Beal shouting, “I’m mad as HELL and I’m not going to take it ANYMORE.”

But Beal died for daring to speak too much truth.

If I showed that movie to my classroom, the kids would probably think it was a documentary.

So, Jon from Alaska, the best place for getting a job would be in journalism. That’s what I know. That’s what I’m good at.

But journalism is hardly practiced anymore by the remaining news outlets.

What you see in markets big and small is a kind of burglary passed off with a good cover story about being overwhelmed by changes in technology and babbling about social media.

I worked in St. Louis for a while. It didn’t go well. I was an asshole in a town where you could only be an asshole if you grew up there.

They had a saying about the old newspaper owner while I worked there.

Joe Pulitzer was a great newsman. Joe Pulitzer II was a great newsman. Joe Pulitzer III was a great art collector.

Pulitzer III’s widow sold off the paper to Lee Enterprises, an Iowa company.

This was a little bit like a guy who owned a few fishing boats buying a battleship. They both go on water and you can fall out and drown, but that’s where the similarities end.

Lots of people fell off the St. Louis paper and drown over the last 15 years. More will before it’s done.

Somewhere, a couple of bag men drop off a few more suitcases of $100s in unmarked, nonsensical bills at Lee executives’ houses.

The cases get lighter every year and so too does the payroll at the paper, which exists mostly to cover the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

Eventually the suitcases will be reduced to some pocket change and whatever is left of the newspapers the corporations have wrecked, mostly used furniture, will be auctioned off.

Jon from Alaska is right. I should get a job. I’ve applied for a job at the local Gannett outlet store several times. They don’t bother to respond. That’s probably for the best.

After two layoffs in a dozen years, I’m beginning to think they’re serious about not wanting me around.

I wonder if they’ll even be around each other anymore. They’ve been out of the office since the pandemic started and they aren’t considering a return until fall.

This could be the moment Gannett says, “Do we really need an office?” They issue laptops and smartphones. They have instant messaging. Why bother paying rent for a combo fax machine and printer?

I digress.

I hate to disappoint Jon from Alaska. But I am trying to get a job.

I’m retraining in graduate school to become a teacher.

That’s right. I’m going from the beloved highly respected field of journalism to the carefree and lucrative field of public education.

When I write it down like that, I get that feeling the Coyote in Road Runner cartoons must get when he realizes there’s no ground beneath him, only a long fall to the desert bottom with a giant rock landing on his head.

So, sadly, Jon from Alaska, I’m going to need those state benefits for a minute.

Some folks would tell me not to bother with Jon from Alaska. He’s a troll. He’s beneath my contempt.

I disagree.

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that the cruel things people — even strangers — say about us don’t hurt.

They do. They absolutely do.

We do a disservice to our emotional well-being to pretend we’re invulnerable to cruelties cast so casually at us by others.

Jon from Alaska’s snark did hurt my feelings. It made me mad enough to stack all these paragraphs.

But Jon from Alaska doesn’t define me.

I’m gonna fight for my benefits allowed.

I’m gonna fight for my career.

And, one more time, fuck off Jon from Alaska.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
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An Iowa State Trooper killed in the line of duty, a school shooting and another Black man killed by a cop in Minneapolis? These are the days I don’t miss journalism.

Many days I miss being a journalist. The job could be great fun. And the people, oh the characters, I met. There are so many stories I don’t dare share publicly that still make me laugh. I also worked alongside some of the most entertaining humans one will ever know.

This proves less and less so every day, especially as our nation seems to rack up tragedies as senselessly and randomly as the point system on ESPN’s Around the Horn.

Friday, a man shot and killed 27-year veteran Iowa State Trooper Jim Smith after an incident in Grundy Center.

A Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop. The Brooklyn Center chief said he believes the shooting was accidental.

Brooklyn Center is a suburb of Minneapolis, where a year ago George Floyd, also a Black man, died after a Minneapolis cop leaned on Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly 9 minutes. That former officer, Derek Chauvin, stands trial for Floyd’s murder less than 20 minutes by car away from where Wright died.

A Knoxville, Tennessee, student shot and wounded a police officer at a magnet school. The student died when police returned fire. As the pandemic wanes, so raises the sadly familiar fear of our schools as targets for spree killers rather than institutions for learning.

Some of my best work and fondest memories came on the night police beat for the local Gannett Outlet Store. The beat also drained me of my humanity.

Trooper Smith died in the line of duty. The reporters from the wire services, the newspapers, radio stations and TV stations dig in. They want details about Smith’s life. Family. Children. Hobbies.

Many times, reporters find themselves at the door of someone who has suffered a terrible tragedy: the loss of a loved one by violence. This always churned my guts. I couldn’t help but think the last thing in the world I would want was some stranger on my front stoop knocking on my door and asking me to tell them all my secrets.

If I were still practicing the trade, I might have had to knock on that door.

I chocked down my distaste for this work with the advice of Tom Alex, the Register’s longtime day police reporter. He always said it was better to have someone call you a son of a bitch and slam the door in your face before you wrote the story than write the story and then have somebody call and call you a son of a bitch because you got it wrong and didn’t even try to talk the victim’s family.

But near the end of my career this was not enough. The digital age demanded push alerts and real-time updates to website stories. We sometimes wrote from notoriously inaccurate scanner traffic. We clawed for every piece of information and pushed it out.

Reporters were given less and less time to work with police officers and develop sources. There was a time when cops and reporters got to know each other as people. Now reporters demand things and cops fear reporters are pushing a political agenda with each question.

It’s a stalemate that is detrimental not only to news reports but the trust in both institutions, neither of which can afford to lose more ground with an increasingly distrustful and divided public.

That same stalemate occurs in reporting on the racial implications of the trial of Chauvin and the truth of Wright’s death at the hands of police in the same metro area.

Passions burn. Attempts to find the truth that contradict our preconceived notions about what and why caused these deaths. The pick-your-confirmation bias media force us to parrot the angry talking points that agree with what we agree with what we’ve already determined are the facts.

Most you’re-with-us-or-against-us narratives are false, but the public has no patience for non-binary ideas. Somebody is a good guy. Somebody is a bad guy. Pick which one and scream on social media.

Half of journalism jobs disappeared between 1990 and 2020. The anemic reporting staff that remains is ill-equipped and poorly experienced to vet the issues of the day let alone foster meaningful and healing discussion.

They try, but most outlets are owned by greedy corporate hustlers and hedge funds whose only point is to turn $1 into $2 as fast as possible in order to make a handful of rich white men fractionally richer.

Today’s journalists are forced to beg for subscribers in their social media feeds and use metrics — what people clicked on yesterday — to decide what to cover the next day. Sometimes this means news outlets make fools out of themselves trying to get too many bites out of a one-hit feature story like Fruit Loops pizza. Other times, it means worthy projects are abandoned because the online audience has lost interest.

This is not a one-to-one. News outlets, even the ones I make fun of, do try to keep the public informed.

But the public does not want to be informed. It wants to be affirmed.

The problem, of course, is we are all merely human and, by definition, flawed and prone to mistakes.

Our only hope is to recognize is that our flaws unite us and the correction can only be found in a collective offering of grace.

Many days I miss the newsroom, but mostly I miss the people and the memories. When I think of the task before them, the challenges they face and they pain and suffering they witness, those are the days I’m glad to be a civilian, knowing the phone won’t ring with an editor asking me to go ask strangers to tell me their secrets.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. 
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. 
Venmo@newsmanone
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Thoughts on teaching journalistic writing

My friend Ken Fuson, the greatest writer in the history of the Des Moines Register, died in January. I wrote the news obituary about his death. My first paragraph: “Ken Fuson would have written this better.”

I feel the same way as I explore my thoughts about writing and teaching writing as I study at Drake University to earn my master’s degree and teacher certification.

I hope to teach writing and journalism. I hope to spark that creative flame in others the way Carol Liechty at Winterset Elementary and Middle schools and Chris Madison did for me at Winterset High School.

Bob Woodward, my mentor, teacher and friend at Drake when I was an undergraduate, shaped and directed my passion. It led to a 23-year career in journalism. I wrote Woodward’s obituary the same day I did Fuson’s.

I remember people often asked Fuson for writing advice. It seemed as if they wanted some poetry or a magic trick. He had neither.

I can do no better, except to offer some thoughts. This is how I prefer to write. These are the stories I prefer to read. There are many styles. There are many ways. There are many ideas.

These are mine.

Writing is work. It is damned hard work for which most of us who do this for a living are paid a pittance by people who’ve never composed a paragraph worth reading.

Just tell the story. Stay out of the way. Keep your judgements to yourself. Let the reader decide based on the volume of facts you provide.

Journalism is not advocacy. Your work should be easily distinguishable from advocacy. Just tell people what is going on.

Journalism is also not fiction. The late, longtime New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell is quoted as saying, “A newspaper can have no greater nuisance than a reporter trying to make literature.”

I agree. Report. Ask people what is going on. Follow the money. Check the documents. Let facts, stated simply and clearly, dominate your story. Leave artistic flourishes to middle school poets.   

Read. Read a lot. Read often. Keep a book by your favorite chair. Keep magazines or another book in your bathroom. Keep another one by your bed. Read things you admire. Read writers you hate.

Read about what you know, but especially read about what you don’t know.

Example: Don’t like sports? Read one sports story a week or a sports biography a year. We don’t stack paragraphs for ourselves.

We write for the masses. The masses like sports. They like sports better than politics. Learn about them. Learn about TV and other crap, too.

Remember: This is journalism. You can’t afford to be a dummy about anything.

Think while you read. Interview the text. Why did the writer choose this detail? How would I get these facts? How would I structure this sentence?

Teach the voice in your head to speak slowly and clearly, but don’t write like you talk. Write like you wished you spoke: with grace, elegance and clarity.

Your writing can only be as good as your reporting. Never say you’re a better writer than a reporter. There is an old story about baseball pitchers who can’t field their position. They are destined for mediocrity. A writer who can’t report won’t even be that good.

Avoid adjectives and adverbs. They make sentences longer and are seldom objective. They are never as telling as you think they are.

Avoid gerunds. If you don’t know what a gerund is, look it up. Then avoid it. A sentence can almost always be rewritten to avoid a gerund.

Favor verbs. To be or not to be may be the question. It is not the only verb. Verbs are the engines of language. Without verbs, your sentence is dead.

Use words everyone can understand.

This is not original to me: The reader does not need an excuse to stop reading.

Short sentences are better than long ones. The same is true of paragraphs.

Use bad assignments to practice things you’re not good at.

Keep quotes short. You’re probably a better writer than your source is a talker. Boil it down. Treat it like fractions in math: simplify.

Avoid “color.” Color is adding facts that don’t matter. Does it matter if the candidate ate vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Does it matter if he or she was eating at all?

Don’t write about the weather unless it’s a weather story or the weather is part of the story. It’s hot in July and August. It’s only interesting if the candidate dies of heat stroke or people pass out in the audience. Otherwise you’re just whining.

Stick to the point. Avoid clutter.

Ask: How did you come to know this? Never, ever write faux facts.  

If you say the truck roared down a road with a diesel rumble, you damned well better have heard it or seen it. If not, attribute it to the person who told you.

On second thought, does the diesel rumble matter? Remember, avoid clutter.

You might get away with flowery faux facts, but you’re making up stuff. You’re lying to the reader about what you know to manipulate them emotionally.

Knock it off. The readers are lied to and manipulated enough.

Ask: What does it mean to the reader? Don’t impress me. Don’t impress yourself. Don’t impress the boss. Just tell people what the hell is going on. Do that effectively and consistently. That will be impressive.

Admit it when you don’t know something. If you don’t, at best you’ll seem like a jerk. At worst, you’ll be a liar.

Work fast. Think faster. Favor facts. Keep it simple.

That’s all I have. Ask other people. They are probably better at this than me.

Daniel P. Finney searches for his brain inspection hatch at ParagraphStacker.com.

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I launch this new venture continuing the journalism you’ve demanded. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.