Monday, June 1, 2009

Three Stories that Persistence Made Possible for Jacqui Banaszynski (Now with more Pulitzers)

We should all be so lucky as to spend some time talking to and working with an editor as ingenious, dogged and passionate as Jacqui Banaszynski. Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and an Editing Fellow at the Poynter Institute. She worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, and now leads workshops for journalists around the world.

I was lucky enough to attend a writing workshop she conducted at Health Journalism 2009, and I knew I had to ask her to comment for this blog.
Happily, she agreed and the next two days, you'll get two great posts from her. Today, she shares three stories that persistence made possible for her. Tomorrow, she'll answer a bunch of other questions. Stay tuned.

There are so many examples of how persistence paid off in (saved) my stories that it’s hard to know where to begin. It is no exaggeration to say that persistence — hard work, follow through, patience, a bit (OK, more than a bit) of stubbornness —had much more to do with any success I’ve had than native intelligence, writing talent or even training. There’s an old saw that reporters make their own luck, and a lot of that luck is sheer stick-to-itiveness.

The best examples from in my reporting:

Not Letting the Story Die
When a natural gas pipeline in suburban St. Paul ruptured and exploded, killing a young mother and her daughter, it was big news. Every news outlet in the region wanted an interview with the husband/father, who had survived the blast with his other daughter. But he made it clear he wasn’t talking, and after a few days, most other journalists gave up.

I continued to work the story each day, gently but constantly reaching out to other sources to try to get to the husband while respecting his privacy boundaries. Finally, about 10 days after the explosion, the husband called me. It took a little more intense work to get him to understand why I wanted to talk to him, and to agree. The interview produced one of the most compelling emotional narratives I’ve ever been privileged to do.

Reporting as a Form of Persistence
A popular young priest in Minnesota was fired by his bishop in the midst of the AIDS/gay rights battles of the late 1980s. Religion and moral/social issues were hot-button topics in Minnesota at the time, and the priest had written an article criticizing the Catholic church’s attitudes toward disenfranchised groups, especially gays.

Everyone wanted an interview with the priest to determine his motivation: Was he making a principled sacrifice on behalf of others? Or was he gay himself, and living a double life? The priest adamantly refused to talk after making an initial, brief public statement. I kept after the story, peeling off five or six related pieces over the next three or four weeks, and using each of them as an excuse to call the priest for comment. Over time, he realized I was both professional and determined; I wouldn’t give up but I wouldn’t burn him.

At the same time, I learned more about church issues, and about the priest himself. He ultimately agreed to an interview, in which he revealed that he was faithful to his vows — and that he was gay and could no longer live with the internal conflict. The resulting profile was one of the first pieces hinting at what became a major and complex national issue about homosexuality and mainstream churches.

The Importance of Support
As the AIDS crisis worsened in the mid-1980s, my editor suggested I do a death-to-diagnosis narrative of someone dying of the disease. It took a full year, talking to dozens of sources and following dozens of leads, to find the right subject for that story and to negotiate access. The result was “AIDS in the Heartland,” a four-part series that won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. And in that case, my “persistence” was helped immeasurably by photographer Jean Pieri, my partner on the project. When one of us flagged, the other pushed. Jean met our story subjects first, and paved the way for everything to come. In the same way I often needed a running partner when I was marathoning, it can help for a writer to have a partner or buddy to keep them going.

What It Means

But persistence was key in all aspects of my work — from developing trust with sources, to staying with a story over a long course of time, to calling back sources multiple times to ensure accuracy, to simply showing up for work day after day, year after year, to write paragraph after paragraph until I gained some sense of journalistic mastery and creative voice.

Too many journalists think good writing is either the result of raw talent or magic. Or they were good at it in high school so think it should be a snap to succeed professionally. They then grow frustrated when they don’t win big freelance contracts or big awards overnight. The hard truth is that writing is like music or sports: It takes years of practice, coaching (feedback) and attention — writing and then writing and then writing some more —to get good and stay good.

1 comment:

Melody said...

Thanks so much for posting this. What an inspiring read -- and a reminder that getting the story often requires patience and hard work.