WSJ reporter Schoofs says goodbye
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Mark Schoofs, a Wall Street Journal reporter who is leaving the paper for ProPublica, sent a goodbye e-mail to his colleagues Friday that included some excellent writing tips.
On Monday, after more than 11 years at The Wall Street Journal, I’ll start a new job. I’ll be a senior editor at ProPublica, leading a team of investigative reporters.
I’ll miss helping to put out one of the world’s great newspapers, and I’ll especially miss working with WSJ’s stellar journalists, particularly my colleagues on Page One, led by the incomparable Alix Freedman. Indeed, I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant Journal-istes across the globe on stories ranging from the effects of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to financial abuse in Medicare, to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, to scuba diving below the ice in the arctic White Sea, to a Jewish wife searching for her Muslim husband lost in the 9/11 attacks.
My colleagues and mentors – too many to name here – taught me not only about journalism, but also about life. Most of those lessons can’t be shared in an email, but one actually can. It’s the clearest roadmap I’ve ever seen on how to write a Page One story.
The article at issue was about HIV in Russian prisons, and I had turned in a draft – too long, of course – that was divided into sections denoted by three asterisks, like this: * * *. Patient, long-suffering Bill Spindle wrote back the following email, which I’ve used as a cheat sheet ever since, and which I now hope others can put to similar use.
From: Spindle, Bill
Sent: Thursday, June 06, 2002 3:08 PM
To: Schoofs, Mark
Subject: RE: Voila
This is a great story…….though one you’re going to have to spend a bit more time getting into Journal shape. It isn’t that it’s poorly done — to the contrary, it’s well written, clearly thought-through and remarkably well reported. It just isn’t presented in that venerable Journal style — and I doubt I have to tell you how we automatons on the desk feel about the sanctity of Journal Style. You’ve organized and written this piece as something far more at home in a magazine — as a story that looks at the many aspects of AIDS and the Russian penal system. And you’ve used some writing devices that don’t translate well to the Journal — even though we like to run around saying our stories are like magazine pieces, even though they really aren’t. They’re their own species……
….Basically, you need to hone this piece down so that it is far more focused not on the many aspects of AIDS and the Russian penal system but on a single, driving theme: how the Russian penal system spreads AIDS, making the AIDS problem here fundamentally different than anywhere else. That’s going to mean jettisoning some material that’s inarguably socially important, but can’t be put to work in service of the theme of this story so doesn’t belong there (or so the style gods, would say). The long section on discrimination and human rights abuses inflicted on AIDS prisoners, for example, doesn’t fit easily into the core of your story. Actually, each time you find yourself inserting those little asterisks in your stories, you should think about whether you’re focus is drifting too far for the style police to tolerate. Those are precisely the places where, in a magazine piece, the reader takes a little breather, backs up, or heads off in a slightly new direction, and then sets out again. But that isn’t the way Journal pieces work; in them, the logic and development of the piece proceeds pretty seamlessly, without real breaks in logic or flow. The one big exception is in stories with strong narrative components, when you hit the part that says, basically, “It all began back when…..blah blah blah”. But even then, you’ll notice, these transitions sometimes get truncated so severely you hardly notice. For example, you almost never read the classic (cliched) mid-story magazine transition: William K. Spindle was born into a gypsy family in a…..blah blah.”
The other style dogma the piece needs to work at more is just sentence by sentence getting from logical point a to logical point b in a more direct route. Your instincts to use the Multanovskiy anecdote as the lede are right on….He illustrates exactly how and why the prison system is the core of Russia’s coming AIDS crisis…..But the way it’s constructed, you sort of back into the anecdote, taking the reader through several logical steps before arriving at the point. Again, works just fine in a true magazine format, but for a traditional leder you need to walk the reader straight from exhibit A, Alexander Multanovskiy, to the point: he’s one big reason why AIDS is going to explode in Russia. As currently constructed, that takes six pretty long grafs. It probably should be done in two or three — it probably won’t turn out to be as artful, but the reader also won’t have to contend with so much — notes and cigarettes, overcrowded penitentiaries, pre-trial detention centers, tuberculosis etc.
Anyway, I realize I’m sounding pedantic……I just think it’s worth writing through this once more, trying to bring it down into the length range of a regular leder, about 50 inches, give or take five inches, and honing the focus a bit. More concrete suggestions in the text of the story, which I’ve attached.
I’ll treasure this and all the other lessons I’ve learned at The Wall Street Journal.