One-on-One With Pulitzer Prize Winner Eli Saslow
Jerk Magazine: You’ve said before that you were originally worried that your Pulitzer Prize-winning series on food stamps was going to be too bureaucratic. In a media landscape where it’s very easyand potentially tempting to dumb down or dramatize stories to make them more digestible, what do you do with a piece like this? How do you fight sounding bureaucratic while staying true to the story?
Eli Saslow: Most things in the world are not simple, and the biggest problems that our country faces are never simple. If we’re writing about those things in a way that is reductive or basic, we’re not doing justice to anybody. We’re cutting our readers short and disrespecting them in a way, and we’re not doing a service to the people who we’re writing about. It’s important in every story to reflect the nuance and complexity. I’m not sure if those problems will get solved anyway, but they definitely won’t get solved if we simplify and stereotype. It’s that kind of journalism that has stated some of the problems and furthered the divide. If you don’t know a lot about something, it’s easy to feel like you’re certain about it. The best journalism questions that assumption, and fills it with new storylines.
JM: So what do you do when reporting a story like Newtown?
ES: I went to Newtown right when the story happened. I was writing three or four stories every few days. I left and it was really unsatisfying. In those first days, I didn’t feel like I was getting to the heart of the story. The story was about this big thing, not about the real, even more horrible personal connections and the effect it had on people’s lives. I went back four or five months later—that’s the other thing that I try to do with the stories that I write, to keep paying attention when people aren’t paying attention anymore. That’s when the best stories happen, when people stop paying attention. That’s what happens. When I went back, families were going to the state legislatures where they weren’t making any difference and they were learning the reality of how little this shooting was going to mean. You have to do them justice when writing about them in such a full and complete way. I was there for a few days, spending 16 hours a day following them wherever they went.
JM: What’s more important, being first or reporting in depth stories?
ES: They’re both important. It’s important to be first. That’s the kind of journalism we’re producing now. It might be because I’m not good at it, but it’s not the kind of journalism that I do. The other kind of journalism is to write the story that’s most lasting and most memorable. A year later, who really remembers who was first? But those stories that take you to an intimate place, you do remember that. That’s the kind of journalism that’s worth paying attention to.
JM: What are some of your favorite memories from Syracuse?
ES: My sophomore year, which I was thinking about recently—that year I was a train wreck. I must have been sick the whole year. Working at the Daily Orange all the time, barely trying to keep my grades at a level that was somewhat respectable and passing, putting my body through the wringer every weekend. I was sick for six months straight. Best kind of sick ever. I was depleted, but I was doing what I wanted to do: work at the DO and hang out with friends. I really loved being at Syracuse. I went there with no idea what I wanted to do. Every guy who goes to Newhouse thinks they’re going to be a sports broadcaster, and that’s what I thought too. I had no idea that I wanted to have a career in journalism, and I floated around for a while. The DO helped me figure out what I wanted to do, what I cared about, and what I could get good at. I feel indebted to the place for that.
JM: What was your favorite story you wrote while you were here?
ES: One of my best friends at Syracuse University was Chico Harlan, who works for the Washington Post now, too. It’s actually pretty funny that we work at the same place now. He and I did a story together my senior year about an SU basketball player named Deshaun Williams. He had terrorized the campus for years before getting kicked out of school. He punched out Otto the Orange, went to his girlfriend’s apartment and ripped off the door. Then during his trial, he fell asleep. He was just a mess. Chico and I just decided we wanted to do a story that went deep into his character and his time at Syracuse. It was the first time I did really in-depth journalism. I’m sure there are things about the writing I would cringe at now, like the scene of him getting a blow job at a bar. We were trying to talk to 30 to 50 different people and got Boeheim to open up about it. There was a rumor that Deshaun impregnated the next-best player’s girlfriend, and even Boeheim was like, “I don’t know if that’s true or not.” We got a lot of response. More than any other story and any other thing, this propelled me to do the journalism that I wanted to do. We were afraid he would come on campus and find us. That story got him kicked off the new team he was on. It taught me how to do this kind of journalism. To plan it, we put up these huge pieces of papers on the wall in our house on Comstock Avenue. Anyone who came in saw it during a party or something probably thought we were plotting to kill someone.
JM: Which stereotypes about journalists have you seen to be true?
ES: Some of them, but the stereotypes are also changing so quickly because the industry is changing so quickly. Even when I started, there were still the people of old guard, people who had flasks in their desks and were old rouser housers. So many of the people we hire are online, web producers. It’s a very different feel. The stereotypes can’t keep up.
JM: What do you think about the pressure on journalists to have a “personal brand” now?
ES: The best kind of journalism is not about the journalist. It’s about the people you write about. I want my stories to be about them, not about me. Nothing is as important as the subjects I’m trying to write about. It depends on the kind of journalism you want to do. There are certain people who are really good at self-promotion and have mastered social media. That’s not the kind of career I would choose. I think it’s another kind of thing where sure, it’s good if you can promote your own stories and do that kind of thing, but we shouldn’t be journalists because we want to be the stories. Most people go into journalism because they want to tell other people’s stories. Even at the Post there’s this idea about how you need to be posting a certain amount of times. It takes time away from what could be spent doing important, good work. I always made time on the side, and made a goal that every three months I would do one story I cared about. The other thing is just to be happy in a job. You want to make sure you’re doing some stories for you.
JM: What about working in the “real world” surprised you? Anything you weren’t prepared for?
ES: The biggest one was what every news organization is hungry for ideas. If you don’t come up with ideas and rely on editors to tell you what you should be writing about, you’re in trouble. There was a while that I was doing that, but you learn you’re more invested in your own ideas. It’s really important to try to invest as much time as possible to pitching and thinking about how you can pitch better. Now I’m at the point where probably 90 percent of the stories I do are my ideas from beginning to end.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Jerk.