About Icess Fernandez Rojas

Icess is a writer, professor, and blogger. She is a graduate of Goddard College's MFA program. Her work has been published in Rabble Lit, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Feminine Collective's anthology Notes from Humanity. Her nonfiction has appeared in Dear Hope, NBCNews.com, HuffPost and the Guardian. She is a recipient of the Owl of Minerva Award, a VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation alum, and is also a Kimbilio Fellow. She's currently working on her first novel.

7/15/15 Critique

-Best visuals: SAE photos shot by Cody Bahn. Coming in a close second is Alexa Stickler’s photo ill for social media.

-Best story – I enjoyed three stories this week. Anna Gutierrez’s social media story, the 25 criminal trespass story, and the system separates fees from tuition story. I like them all but for different reasons. I’ll explain more in depth in the critique.

Again, I think the SAE story was great choice for centerpiece. Congrats to Javier for his first centerpiece!

The design could have been a bit more fun. It would have been a great opportunity to play with white space. The main art, the horizontal could have been the dominant art with white space. The vertical could have been smaller as well. The headline should be fun something like:

And they’re off

Formula SAE team hosts annual racing event

Looking at the story, I wish that it had a deeper read. There were lots of typos that weren’t caught. The copy isn’t very clean and it was difficult to read because of it.

The fees and tuition story – the was very clear. So was the headline. Super newsy with important that readers need to know about. Among one of the attributes of the story is that Matt Fulkerson clearly explained how tuition is decided, a process not everyone knows and understands.

I chose the trespass story as one of the best stories because it’s an example of something called an enterprise story, a story that isn’t breaking or from a press release but that is “found” on the reporter’s beat. Kathryn Cargo noticed that there were 17 non-students arrested so far this summer.

Enterprise stories are how news reputations are built. They also make great clips. Every reporter should aim to do enterprise reporting.

I was surprised that the trespass story didn’t have a graphic. The story has lots of numbers, most especially in the lede and it lends itself to numbers. It was disappointing that we didn’t take that opportunity to do that with this story.

Also, I’m surprised that this didn’t make it to the front page. No one else has this story! This is our story that we found and reported! When we have these stories, we need to show them off.

Digging in – the lede isn’t as direct as it should be. It doesn’t tell me why having that many non-students arrested from May until now is a big deal. Is that number up or down from last year? Is it the same? Is police increase patrols? Do more people need to be on alert? Those are just some of the questions from the lede the reader is asking. So many questions and not enough answers.

Remember when we talked about numbers and stats? There always needs to be a baseline. Did something increase or decrease? Can’t know that until you have something to compare it to. This story missed that.

The I-30 story is one of those that are definitely of interest because, as a commuter campus, anything having to do with roads readers will flock to. This in particular is of interest because it’s frustrating to get off of 360 to get on 30. Like, what is that?

So this lede, however, is clunky and complicated.

Modern renovations are in the works for Interstate 30 and State Highway 360 at the heart of Arlington’s entertainment district. Because I-30 and SH 360 don’t directly connect, motorists have to exit the highway and drive through multiple stoplights to get on the other.

The lede really is just that first sentence. The second sentence is completely out of place and seems like it would go in the nutgraph. But is it renovations or are they building connectors?

The story has some structure problems as well. We learn that the project will be out to bid before we even know what the project actually is. What are the contemporary upgrades exactly? And since they build things like these in phases, what are they going to be doing in each phase. And the MILLION DOLLAR question wasn’t answered. When are people going to be able to drive on this thing?

The Life section had something I’ve been talking about forever – news to use. Just a calendar of the fall concerts. Brilliant. It’s something that people can tear out of the paper and keep for a reference or a graphic they can look on line for to find out what they need to know.

I’m wondering, however, why the social media story wasn’t the centerpiece in the section? The photo ill told the story and the topic is of interest to readers.

Alright. More on the board! Door’s open!


Newsletter Critique July 9

Cops, a horse and a lion, oh my! Interesting stories in this newsletter. Let’s dive in.

I want to talk about the headlines in the actual newsletter for a minute. Just because it was the headline on the story doesn’t mean it has to be the headline in the newsletter.

For example, the transformation story. We used that headline on the story but the newsletter is about enticing people to click on a story from their in box. There are four parts to doing that.

  • The Visual
  • The Headline
  • The Text
  • The Call to Action

All of these things work together. In the transformation entry, the photo is working for you, the headline isn’t. Remember, stories are about people and how they chose to live their lives. It’s also how readers attach themselves to stories. So the headline should reflect that. Then try switching to something like: Student’s 150-pound weight loss goes viral.

Transformation Tuesday does make me want to click. That headline says this is a story about a social media trend. The 150 pound headline makes me pay attention and say, “Wow”!

The same with the Facebook headline. Have some fun with it! Lots of opportunities for puns and stuff. When these opportunities come, take them. Always.

Now let’s talk about call to actions, the hyperlinked line readers click on to get to the story. These are hard to write. Why? Because the two most reasonable and popular call to actions are the ones people ignore, 1) Read more here 2.) Click here for more information. So there’s always a constant turmoil to be fresh but to have the line do what it needs to do.

For the transformation story, the call to action could be: Learn more about her journey. Or Found out how she did it.

Loving David Dunn’s lede on his preview of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It made me smile. Why? Perhaps if you didn’t read the book, you saw the movie, or saw some sort of cultural reference to it. The lede made a reference to something most people know about when it comes to this story – Narnia. In one line, he hit on the thing that makes this story special, the fantasy part. Great job.

I also want to point out what happens when research and interviewing come together. Check out the paragraph about the play’s different variations. Again, there’s only one story but David found out that there were different interpretations of the play. That’s when he asked the director a play and got a really good answer.

Taking a look at the student reports theft story. I find this interesting. So…homeboy notices his stuff is gone at 5:17 p.m. (that’s pretty specific) but didn’t report it until 10:13 p.m. Um, what? That’s five hours almost to the minute. Did anyone ask why it took so long for the student to report this theft? Details, details, details. They’ll get you every time. What’s going on here besides what’s going on here?

July 8 issue critique

Woo! It took some time to get through this meaty newspaper. Lots of news! More than last week. Lots to read.

So let me get started.

Best lede: Anna Gutierrez’s lede on the Transformation Tuesday story is just plain awesome. It captured the essence of the story before I read it. It passes the TSA test – what will you tell your loved one something important right before you pass the guard in the TSA line.

Best headline: One extra life for video games. LOVE THIS! It’s a pun, it hints at the story about dispelling a video game myth by using a common thing in the subject of the story – an extra life.

Best visual: I love the football photos on the front page. I’m glad we took advantage of color this week. And also glad that we promo-ed a story online that was a great enterprise piece from Karen Gavis and great photos from Kayla Stigall.

You’ve heard me say before that details will take something from good to great. That has never been so true than it is with this issue. I read some places where the word choice wasn’t quite right, or there was lots of info stuffed in one sentence, or where things were just not quite as focused as it should be.

For example, this headline: Benefits linked to homophobia

Reading it before the story, it makes me think that there are some benefits to homophobia. Yikes! When I read it, it instantly put me off. Imagine what it did with the reader?

In the copy, there’s examples of work choice or tightening that could make the stories better. For example, in the Transformation Tuesday story, the sentence “The tweet ended up getting close to 34,000 retweets and over 50,000 favorites.”

Not a bad sentence. Here’s what it looks like when it’s tightened.

The tweet received about 34,000 retweets and more than 50,000 favorites.

It gives the reader the same info with fewer words. Five words were replaced with two.

Let’s do another one. The Facebook lede was great.

Facebook “likes” Fort Worth by unveiling a $1 billion, 250,000 square foot data center Alliance Center with plans to expand to 750,000 square feet with two additional buildings in the future.

Wow. That’s a long sentence. Let’s try this.

Facebook “likes” Fort Worth.

The social media company unveiled a new data center at Alliance Center Tuesday that will (insert what data centers do cause I have no idea). The $1 billion, 250,000 square foot building is one of five worldwide. The company plans to expand the facility to 750,000 square feet with two additional buildings.

There’s lots of information in the lede of this story. There’s so much that it’s a lot to process all at once. So how do you distill lots of good info that needs to be up high in the story? One thought per sentence.

Also, you gotta separate the “likes” sentence because when are you ever going to get a chance to write that again?


Looking at Opinion and Life. Both have opportunities to make the content more focused. For the two columns, the argument, the writer’s actual opinions were at the end. Why? They’re great opinions! There’s lots of story but not enough opinion.

Usually when the opinion is at the end of a column, it’s because the argument hasn’t been development enough.

On the Life page, the name survives rebuild story seemed like it was two stories in one. Large chunks of it had been reported before (some by this paper) and there was really nothing new. Also, the story began as a look at the library’s name sake but quickly went to another topic. That reporting wasn’t picked up until the very end.

This is what these three things have in common. The focus wasn’t quite right. In the opinion pieces, more time should have been spent developing the arguments. Tubman on the $20 rather than the $10 – would be great to know why the writer thinks so at the beginning of the piece. Being taken seriously as a professional woman? Yes! So how does it make the writer feel? How have other women combat this? The name story – is it about George Hawkes? Then we need more about him, most especially answering the question: why it’s important to our readers? Or is this a story about UTA student usage at the main library as they talk about what bells and whistles they’re going to put in the new building.

Alright. There’s more on the board to read and look at. As always, my door is open!

Newsletter critique on deck July 7

Glancing at the newsletter today, I see some improvements in writing and focus of stories. So let’s dive in.

Nnenna’s lede was very visual. I could see the folks dressed up and walking around downtown Arlington. Good job!

I’m glad that we featured a video today from Light Up Arlington. When it comes to putting events that happened in the past in the newsletter, this is usually one of the best ways to do it. More on that below.

Overall, there’s some things to work on as far as offerings to our readers.

Today is Tuesday however the parade happened on Saturday. Is a parade that happened on Saturday important to read about on Tuesday. Not really. Usually, if there is interested in an event that has happened days earlier, readers either 1) want to know what’s new or 2) want to see something cool like a video or a photo gallery. They want to see themselves or their experiences reflected back at them. This is one way to do it.

Let’s talk right quick about the parade story. The story feels like it has two ledes 1) the history of the July 4th parade 2) people watching floats. Focus on one thing or the other. How many people did they estimate were at the parade?

In this particular story the bulk of it is about the Sons of Confederate Veterans float. Glad we talked to them since it’s very topical right now. But we didn’t have much context on why they were so prominent in the story. We know why but we have to write about it. Also, I would have liked to have read more voices from parade goers and people on floats, especially UTA floats. We spent so much time on one float that the story was unbalanced.

I’m glad we wrote the Josten’s story. These are the kind of stories we need to write more about – high appeal to our readers.

This story had some structure problems. It had a decent lede but the second sentence looks like it wanted to be a direct lede. It was jarring. Based on what the structure kinda looked like, I made the note to move the second line after the first quote as part of the nutgraph. That’s because there’s a great source and he should be played right on top. He’s a great source because he’s the perfect example how this impacted a student.

Also, there’s some questions that weren’t answered here. How many diplomas had the misprint? How long has Jostens been printing them? What other services do we get from them?

Headline suggestion: Diploma misprint impact new alumni

Why? The story is about the students and how this impacted them. Jostens did the mistake but it’s really about the recent alumni.

I’m surprised that there wasn’t a video with the World Cup reaction story. I thought I heard that there was one in the process? Did I mishear that?


When open records requests get expensive

We talked about open records requests more than a week ago. One of the things we talked about is what entities can charge for open records: 1) time for employee putting the request together 2.) copies among other things.

Here’s an interesting case study with Gawker asking for emails from the city of McKinney for ” (Eric)Casebolt’s records and any emails about his conduct sent or received by McKinney Police Department employees.”

The news organization received a response to their open records request. They can get the info for $79,000.

Whoa! That’s a lot of money. But if you notice, they made a big mistake…they made their request pretty general.

Mistake 1) They didn’t give a range of time or the time is too long

If they wanted emails about the officers conduct about it the pool incident specifically, they should have asked for records between June and July 2015. A two month range. That limits the amount of  “employee time” it takes to put your search together.

But they asked for email going back to 2005! Whoa! That’s 10 years. That’s a lot of email to go through! (See Mistake 4)

Mistake 2) Putting it all in one letter

If you have a big request, it’s been my experience to separate them into smaller requests. With no time range, this is pretty big. I would have asked for emails in one. In other request, I’d ask for the  personnel records but….

Mistake 3) Not knowing what to ask for

Now this is tricky. Technically an entity can say that there is confidential information in those files. But not here. The City of McKinney has chosen to open the files. That’s not without precedent. The City of Dallas vs The Dallas Times Herald case from 1988 — the attorney general rules that some internal affairs records from the police department could be released to the public.

However, do they want the whole file? Part of the file? A certain paper in the file? It’s important to know the name of the document you want specifically and put that in your request. It looks like from this request, that they want to see any past incidents. Perhaps it’s best if they ask for the officer’s complaint file.

Also, know in what format things are kept. If keep everything in paper, know that you’ll incur expensive with labor having to scan those documents into PDFs. If it is done electronically, know what they are using — Word, Excel, some proprietary system (which really doesn’t exist but they’ll use that excuse anyway) — then you know that it’s a matter of search and find or saving things on a thumb drive.

Mistake 4) When they give a suggestion, consider it.

In the letter from the city, they suggested to narrow the focus of their request to a time period of to certain employees. That makes sense. But just because they suggest it doesn’t mean you have to do it.

Ask yourself: What is the goal? If the goal is to get information to tell the story (as it should), then act accordingly.   If you’re doing a fishing expedition, (casting a wide net to see what’s there), then that’s not the best use of your time or resources.

June 30 newsletter critique

It’s good to be back and reading your stuff! I missed y’all while I was away in the Land of a Million Palm Trees. So let’s get cracking.

Looking at the newsletter as a whole, I like the variety of it. Lots to for the reader to get into.

The subject line though didn’t give me the tease to the more important stories. It’s Tuesday and the Supreme Court decision happened on Friday. By now, I already know about the decision. Don’t really need that as a teaser in the subject line. Give me what 1) I don’t already know 2) Is what I need to know now to go on with my life. That means these three stories should have been teased in the subject line: West Nile (relatively new and not that well known) Fourth of July (cause I need to know that ASAP to make plans) and Stolen Cheese (because OMG who steals cheese and crackers!)

Here’s a note about judicial vs legislative branches. Legislative branches pass things by voting. Judicial, in this case the Supreme Court, make decisions. So it’s not a 5-4 vote but a 5-4 decision.

We need to be careful that the blurbs match the headline for the story. Example, The UTA gay marriage supporter story had one headline that told me that it was a reax story. But the blurb told me about the SC decision. That’s not what the story is about. It’s people’s reaction to this and that’s what the blurb should reflect.

The same goes with West Nile. Headline is one thing but blurb talks about spraying. It should probably talk about the area the infected mosquito was found rather than the spraying. The teaser link is: how to stay safe.

Looking at the SC decision package, the Gov. Abbot response shouldn’t have made it to the newsletter. Again, that happened Friday and by now everyone knows. What is important now is the reaction to it, what people thought and felt, which is something no one else has. Play that bigger. Also, it would have been great to ask for people to write opinion pieces about the topic so that we’d have some thoughts for the opinion page this week. Let’s look for opportunities like this to continue and lead conversations. That’s how we continue to be a place where people will want to express their opinion.

Talking about stories here, Kathryn Cargo’s lede on the church story was great! That first line told me that I was in for a great story and I was. It didn’t disappoint. I wanted more about the celebration at the church though. I wanted more about the scene at the church. Show me more about what was happening. Give me atmosphere! Paint me a picture!

Talking about pictures…do we have anything from the church. The photos on here are from another even in Dallas? Which is great but would have been nice to have the photos match the story.

We have some stories/briefs that are missing details. Remember, what makes a story go from alright to great are the details. DETAILS. Like, for example, the West Nile story. Would have been great to have known if they have been spraying this entire time. I’m sure after the rains they were but what if they weren’t. What is spraying going to do now. Mosquito traps only tell you that infected one came through. When was the last time they checked the traps? And for that matter what is West Nile? We’ve been living with it for so long, do we even remember what it is? These details can deepen this story and can make it go from a long brief with a press release at the center of it to a bit of an interesting story.

Same with the two police briefs. Time, date that these incidents were called in? Where was the car left? If it was in a parking lost after hours, then why? Was the student really surprised that they got robbed even after leaving the car unlocked? And where were these computers stored? Closet? Room? Someone’s desk drawer? When did they discover it missing? And did the pickles and crackers go missing the same day? (According to us it looks like it did. It’s not clear.)

Alright, that’s all I got for now. I’m excited to see what you guys have in store for this week.