Professor Walter NiebauerInterviewed by Mary Dye

Department of Communication and Performance StudiesSeptember 27, 2011


Ph.D., 1986, Mass Media, Michigan State University. Dissertation: “Predictive Models of Suburban Weekly Newspaper Circulation, Advertising Space and Existence – 1970-1980.”

M.S., 1972, Environmental Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thesis: “Influence of Proximity and Advertising on Coverage of the Columbia Power Plant Issue.”

B.S., 1970, Communications and Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Teaching Experience at Northern Michigan University:

May 2005 – present, tenured Full Professor

May 2004 – May 2005, tenured Associate Professor

August 2000 – May 2004, untenured Associate Professor

Courses Taught:

  • Public Relations Writing
  • Public Relations Research
  • Public Relations Case Studies
  • Public Relations Campaigns
  • Organizational Communication
  • Entertainment and Sports Promotion Research
  • Entertainment and Sports Promotion Research Campaigns
  • Introduction to Mass Media


As an asset to the Department of Communication and Performance Studies, Professor Niebauer has a knowledgeable background that he likes to share with his students about writing for the general public. Students that he teaches and gives writing assignments to are ultimately learning to communicate an accurate image to a public or publics. Professor Niebauer stresses the importance of being able to write concisely, which is why he assigns writing assignments to his students: “Using big words that an average person does not knowwill be of no use to the general public. Keep it simple. Keep it concise.”

“If you don’t have it down on paper, you don’t have it,” Professor Niebauer explains. He goes on to explain an example of this belief:

“You have a paper that’s due Friday, but you decide to go to the P.E.I.F. to work out with a friend. You think to yourself, ‘I have this paper due Friday, but I have it all up here (in my head)’; but in all actuality, what’s in your brain and what should be on the paper are two different things.”

To best know something, you must be able to put it down on paper, just as you would explain it to someone else. Only then will you master the subject/topic of interest.

Northern Michigan University has a vast spectrum of students with different styles and abilities in writing. It becomes a challenge to learn to write in a journalistic style—presenting the facts clearly to all audiences. One way Professor Niebauer tries to tackle the issue is to have students read writing assignments out loud in class. “Eyes lie to you. Ears are more dependable.” When presenting orally, ten people could interpret a writing assignment in ten different ways, which poses a problem: If you want to get your intended point across, you must present the information in a more clear-cut, concise fashion. Reading your work out loud to an audience allows feedback from peers.

An interesting comment Professor Niebauer made was the statement, “We’d like to thank you for flying American Airlines.” In asking what made that statement incorrect, it is of course the word choice. “So much of English we hear is just junk. We’d like to thank you, but we can’t? Journalists will be checking everything, analyzing everything, and looking to destroy your writing in any way possible.”It is essential to be as concise and to the point as possible, because a client, or an organization, isn’t going to read ten pages. This poses a problem students have with writing. Professor Niebauer says it’s hard to give maximum/minimum requirement lengths, because you shouldlearn to say what you need to say in the clearest words possible without any regard to length. Therefore, the three most important words in having a topic to write about are focus, focus, focus. Focus your ideas into a clear, well-written language everyone can understand.

A bit of advice that students are given from Professor Niebauer is to be careful using quotes or questions as leads. “It’s hard to do—and weak. When writing a lead, if you can summarize things or put a reader in the position you want them to be…wonderful. That is what you should be striving to do.” Only twice in his own writing career have quotes worked to make an exciting lead.

Having a background filled with journalistic writing—memos, conference papers, journal articles—Professor Niebauer feels strongly that writing is important. “Writing is important, because if you don’t have it down on paper, you don’t have it. Worse yet, you think you do, which is deceiving yourself.”While his writing has cut back over the years, he still continues to write reports for organizations, writtenconsultations, journal articles, research reports, and of course, e-mails. ProfesorNiebauer started out as a writer but has now become more of an editor. “Good writers are a dime a dozen; but good editors, they are not that common. A good editor will never be out of work.”

When reading students’ work, Professor Niebauer looks for the English written language vs. the English spoken language. When you read it out loud, it should sound like you are talking. Using huge words that are useless and confusing only obscure the message a writer is trying to convey. The best thing to do is write in a language of everyday communication—a simple way of communicating and getting your point across. Most importantly, Professor Niebauer looks for improvement in his students, a general progression throughout the course in terms of their writing. Professor Niebauer consistently reminds his students, “While there may be some frustration in getting the first paper back, remain calm. Remain calm and seek ways to improve.”