After more than three decades in newspapers, Jacqui Banaszynski is now editor of Nieman Storyboard, a global website which celebrates and examines the art and craft of narrative journalism. She is an emerita professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. Her reporting career took her to all seven continents, including three trips to Antarctica. She has written about corruption and crime, beauty pageants and popes, AIDS and the Olympics, dogsled expeditions and refugee camps, labor strikes and political strife, traffic fatalities and family tragedies. While at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her series “AIDS in the Heartland” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. She was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in international reporting for coverage of the Ethiopian famine and won the nation’s top deadline sports reporting award for coverage of the 1988 Olympics. Banaszynski has edited numerous award-winning projects, including one that won ASNE Best Writing, Ernie Pyle Human Interest Writing and national business and investigative prizes. In 2008, she was named to the Association of Sunday and Features Editors Features Hall of Fame.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
There are no small stories. Every story is important to the people it’s about, and every story should respect the people it’s for.
An extension of that: Don’t confuse the size of the masthead, the circulation or the assignment with the value or quality of the work. People in a small community deserve the same level of journalistic care as those in the big-dog markets — and they probably need it more. And the only real limit to your aspirations is you.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing (or editing) life?
As a writer: Good writing comes from good reporting. Great writing comes from great reporting. This came as a happy surprise that revealed itself over years of struggle (late-night tears and insecurity that would have been debilitating if not for my belief in answers to No. 1 above and wiring for No. 3 below.) I have never been, and am still not, an easy or eager writer. Insecurity travels with every keystroke. But I’ve learned to let that be, and trust that if I have the right goods in my notebook, and am determined to communicate clearly and effectively with readers, I can find my way through the writing.
As an editor: No one wants me to be the editor I had always wanted or needed; they want me to be the editor they want or need — even if it’s not me. And nothing much good comes of pulling punches. (See reference to “brickbat” in No. 3 below.)
As a teacher: I can’t teach anyone anything. All I can do is put knowledge in their path, try to light the way and clear the rocks a bit, but then accept that they will — or won’t — pick up that knowledge when they need it to go forward.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer (or editor), what would it be?
I don’t trust that how I see myself is how others see or experience me. Isn’t that why we resist the one-interview profile? So I crowd-sourced this one. (It was a small crowd.) Responses ranged from Fairy Godmother to Story Whisperer to Story Doctor to Xena Story Warrior to Brickbat. For now, I’ll go with one that I hope is true:
ER doc. Which means (I hope) I am calm, focused and effective under pressure. I care about the patient — or why would I do this work? — but don’t fold in the face of blood or chaos, and don’t indulge in my emotions to the extent it gets in the way of the work that needs to be done — which is never about me. (The same person, who knows me well, says I could probably land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in rough seas. I think he said this knowing we would never have to test that theory. He also knows I love to fly, and have always wanted to be in the cockpit. Alas, both metaphors are challenged by the reality that while I’m OK with blood, I puke at the smell of puke. And I get seasick.)
A funny variation on the above: An editor-boss once told me that one of the reasons he valued me was because “You’ll do dishes.” The feminist in me bristled — but I knew him well enough to know it was meant as a compliment: He could count on me to do what needed to be done and not feel I was above the mundane work. That allowed me to push back a bit for a discussion on what higher-level work I could/should be doing, and how he could support it.
What’s the best piece of writing/editing advice anyone ever gave you?
- Every story prepares you for the next story. So quit obsessing over the story someone else is doing, and give your best to the story in front of you. (Longer backstory here, but that’s a large part of how I did “AIDS in the Heartland,” the project that won a Pulitzer. I couldn’t have done that series 10, or even two, years before I did.
- Hit the send button. This wisdom came to me back in the early ’80s, when I was busting deadline as I obsessed over some basic civic story, probably from a planning commission meeting. So many planning commission meetings! The AME (Thank you, Steve Ronald.) stopped by and told me to put a period at the end of my next sentence, peel out the process BS, and hit SEND. The story was going inside the B section no matter how it was written. And it needed efficiency and clarity — not gothic prose.
The second answer above may seem to contradict the first. But it doesn’t. What I learned from this is to pay attention to the purpose of a story, and let that purpose guide the prose. An informational story needs to be just that: direct and utilitarian. It can open the door to follow-up enterprise pieces, but it shouldn’t ask the reader to wade through my writerly ego. And it shouldn’t ask the copy desk to wait through my angst.
This taught me not to fall in love with “creative” structures when the best thing for the reader is a quick list or Q&A or, yes, inverted pyramid. It also helped me get more efficient, and save time and creative juice for the stories that called for them.
That lesson has informed all my writing, editing and teaching — and reminded me of one of my mother’s many no-nonsense wisdoms: Don’t dress up a pig. Bacon is fine on its own. (If she were alive today, she would scoff at the trend of bacon bits in muffins and ice cream. She wouldn’t be wrong.)