This week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Tom Shroder, who took a buyout from The Washington Post earlier this year. Shroder specializes in long-form narrative stories and recently launched his own editing site. While I did minor freelance work for the Magazine during Shroder’s tenure, I had never talked with or been edited by him, so I was curious what he would have to say about the current state of narrative journalism. In our conversation, he dishes on a common mistake made by narrative freelancers, talks about the genesis of one of the best newspaper narratives ever written, and a offers up a considered defense of poop jokes.
Tell me a little about your background and what you’re doing now.
I’ve been an editor of a Sunday magazine—first for The Miami Herald and then The Washington Post—since 1985. And I’ve been editor of the Post Magazine for the past seven years. I just took the buyout, and I’ve now founded a website called StorySurgeons.com.
You’ve no doubt read a lot of submissions from experienced and beginner long-form reporters. When stories don’t quite work, is there a common point at which they fail?
There are a million places a story can fail, from the initial conceptualization all the way through to the final execution. I think that the most important thing is for someone to understand what the story actually is and the nature of a story. I think that most people, especially inexperienced people, who send stuff—they’ll have no idea what a publication actually does. It’s amazing how many submissions we got that had no relation to the kind of work that ended up in our pages.
Is there a template you have in your head for how you approach editing narrative work? What usually comes first, and what comes last?
What you want is to very quickly understand why there might be some promise in investing time in this thing. You want something to engage your attention. Usually that involves conflict or something unexpected, even just tension between ideas and characters in the scene itself.
Recently on Nieman Storyboard, Tom Hallman of The Oregonian said that there will be problems in newsrooms whenever editors divide staff into two camps, the writers, who are coddled, and the reporters, who work the night shift. Do you find good reporters to be a separate group from good writers?
I’ve never believed that good writing exists independently of what you are saying in your writing. What makes good writing is tremendous understanding of a subject and attention to detail. What good reporters do is dig up incredibly powerful and meaningful detail.
Not all reporters know how to tell a story very well, but you can help them with that as an editor. You can help a good reporter to tell a good story. What you can’t do is tell a good story if you don’t have the facts lined up behind it—in nonfiction, at least.
Where a lot of narrative journalism went wrong was that it became all about the writing, and not about the details for the story and the facts behind it. People felt they could throw some words at people and dazzle. But even good writers need to start with an exceptional set of facts.
You’ve edited a lot of newspaper humor, from Dave Barry to Tony Kornheiser. Is there anything fundamentally different between your approach to editing humor stories and long-form narratives?
The humor things are usually much shorter to begin with, but I approach all editing the same way. I look at something and demand to be engaged from the first word to the last. I have no tolerance for being bored. I read through things and take note of where my attention is being lost. In humor, it’s because the joke isn’t working, either because it doesn’t scan logically, the idea is flawed, or it’s too expected, too clichéd.
I’m thinking of Gene Weingarten, whose best stories seem mash up comedy and tragedy. The Battle Mountain piece that ran not long after the 9-11 attacks, in which he tried to find the armpit of America. And the profile of the great Zucchini, a children’s entertainer with a very complex personal history. Is there a secret to making that comic-tragic mix work?
The secret is a deep understanding of where humor comes from. Humor comes out of our very vulnerable and frightening position in a huge and uncaring universe. What humor does is turn the table on our fear. By laughing at it, we make ourselves feel better about it. We’re all made so we desperately want to live forever, but we’re all going to die. If you step out yourself a little, you can see how ridiculous it is.
Gene is very aware of the absurdity of an individual’s position in life, and he uses it to create humor at the same time that he’s putting together really moving material, and—
And poop jokes. Weingarten seems to like those a lot.
Absolutely, if you think about why poop is funny. Here we are. We’re all going to die. And in order to make ourselves feel better about it, we pretend that we are these pristine vessels. Yet every day we wake up, the first thing we do is emit this bolus of decay.
Poop and mortality are metaphors for each other. That’s why poop is funny. The absurdity of our condition is that we walk around with this absolute conviction that we’ll live forever. Poop jokes are a way of reminding you in an irreverent manner that you’re mortal. So even the poop joke has a serious role to play in telling a story.
How have newspaper narratives changed in the three decades you’ve written and edited them?
Back when I started at the college newspaper in the 70s, that was the heyday of what was then “new journalism,” though of course, the new journalism really wasn’t new. Narrative was not an invention of the print media. Which is good news, because as print media is struggling and contracting, people think that it could mean the death of narrative journalism as we’ve known it. I don’t think that’s true.
Narrative is the way that human beings are genetically coded to understand the world. From the very beginning of the human ability to communicate, the way we’ve understood each other is through story. You can get a bunch of information together and try to communicate something, but you aren’t going to feel you really grasp an issue until you see it unfold in story form. The most meaningful conversations you have with your friends are you telling them stories of your experiences. People who are good at telling narratives will always be valuable.
What’s happened is that newspapers were this huge economic engine, bringing in money that was used to support all sorts of things. There was no reason a newspaper had to be the primary vehicle for narratives. Now with the financial contraction of the industry, a lot of places that were able to afford the resources, they don’t have the space. They don’t have the salaries for the best practitioners of it.
My friend David Von Drehle had this great analogy about how when he was a kid, when they needed a set of matching dinner plates, they’d buy gas at the same station over and over again. The same place, and they’d get another matching plate every time.
But just because people don’t get their dinner plates at gas stations anymore, it doesn’t mean they don’t need plates or gas. I think that could be true about narrative. Just because a lot of newspapers aren’t able to do it anymore, that doesn’t mean that people don’t need narratives, or news.
When there’s both a set of amazing facts and a manner of putting them in a narrative so that they have maximum impact, people remember these stories for decades. They don’t forget.
The question is who’s going to support the professional collection and craftsmanship required to tell these stories. I think more of this kind of thing is going directly into books. Look at all the books on the market that are talking about the financial collapse. And look at the great books on the market about the war. They’re narratives. The classic statement, “Unless you were there and saw for yourself, you can’t possibly know”—well, great narrative lets people be present at events and situations they could not actually be present for.
So books are one thing that’s going to happen. Another thing that’s going on, instead of sitting at your personal computer, more and more people are getting news on their handhelds. But when you’re talking about a handheld, they’re going to be reading maybe five sentences max. That makes the contrast all the way clear. You can’t say, “We’re satisfying their need.”
In order to satisfy a deep need, then I think there will be a lot of opportunities for niche magazines—maybe not the ones that exist now.
These new technologies are not an enemy of narrative, even if they might appear to be. You cannot stamp out that genetic coding to understand the world through narrative. It’s not going anywhere just because we’ve had a digital revolution. People who are panicking about this are taking much too narrow a view of a snapshot from a time of upheaval.
The need to understand the world through story is not going away.
What was the last narrative that knocked your socks off?
I’ve just read Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. It was devastating. I was just reading the paper and wondering, “Should we send 44,000 troops to Afghanistan?” I think we’re all guilty of this. You think of those 44,000 solders as little markers on a Risk board. But when you read Finkel’s book, you’re seeing people staring at their naked wrist, the hand blown off by an incendiary device. The guy is saying, “My hand is gone.”
Finkel makes it so you can’t think of them as markers on a Risk board anymore. These people have so little to do to protect themselves. He makes you think about it in a whole different way. It rips away that distance between war versus the reality of war.
Also, I just got through rereading—Weingarten is coming out with an anthology of his best journalism. He’s such a master storyteller. It starts with Zucchini.
That story is one of the best pieces of narrative journalism I’ve ever read.
That gets at something else about really fine narrative, which is almost mystical. I’ve already said you can’t have good writing in the absence of what it is you’re writing about. You have to have something to reveal, something to tell. Otherwise no amount of wordsmithing will save you.
We started that story with a conflict. Gene didn’t just randomly pick this guy. He heard from this friend that the Great Zucchini was coming to people’s doors at night asking for advances in cash for the party he’d be doing next Saturday.
[SPOILER ALERT!] We started with this conflict of the children’s performer with the hint of something dark there. He could have easily have reported a little and written a perfectly nice feature story without ever discovering the gambling addition or the horrible thing that happened to him as a kid with his neighbor being murdered. But because Gene reported this so deeply and was willing to spend the time talking to everyone about this guy and because his presence was so acceptable, he got to the heart of it.
Gene called me from the road and says, “I’m going to Atlantic City with him.” There was just more and more. When we started out that story, what are the odds that the guy would turn out to have all this going on? What are the odds that there was going to be this unbelievably tragic experience?
Any really great narrative journalist understands that there are no bad stories, there are only incompletely understood stories. That idea—that everything in life is going to be one hell of a story—is what drives the best. And what makes them deliver so consistently. If you look at somebody like Gene or Finkel, you might ask, “How is it that something perfect always seems to happen to them to make the story great?”
Gene and I call that the god of journalism. But the god of journalism pays off the persistent.
Is there anything narrative journalism does that can’t be done by some other type of print or online story?
Narrative journalism is not about delivering information. It’s about delivering the experience of something. That’s what other kinds of journalism, with sidebars and timelines and hypertext and graphics and mapping—all the wonderful things that journalism can do to convey information—none of those things even attempts to deliver the sense of experience. There are some exceptions to that—video, of course. But video is narrative. Also long-form Q&A’s, but those are an excuse for the person being interviewed to tell a story.
One thing I’m trying to do with my website is create an infrastructure for doing fine, nonfiction narrative. It requires time, talent and experience, and newspapers are losing the ability to provide those resources as much as they have in the past. The fact is that technology has enabled people to move it outside of newsrooms.
What stories would you like to see written that you don’t see out there today?
I’m worried about changes at the Post. I think that the Zucchini story—there’s not a place for the Post to run it, as the Post exists today. Given the requirements of the day-to-day, and the resources that have been cut, and the direction that they fell for a variety of reasons, I just don’t see those stories happening in the Post in the immediate future. There is something that’s important that’s being lost.
I understand, of course, how dire the situation is. You’re in a situation where you’re cutting a huge piece of your resources, and you have to do it. And that makes it really, really hard. But right now, I do not see a venue for a story like Zucchini to arise and develop. They’re thinking, “We don’t have the space, and we don’t have the time to spend.”
The magazine still runs stories, but they’re not as long. And they’re not going after that connection to the meaning of life that we aimed for.
You don’t know when you start doing a story like Zucchini that it’s going to wind up like it is. Of course, editors will say, “If we knew this story was out there, we’d run it. We’d find the space.” But you have to invest in it at first, when it’s just a story about a clown.
When you’re in the practice of doing deep and meaningful narrative, the success rate is remarkably high. But it’s not like you know for sure at the outset that it’s going to pay off. You have to be able to take those risks.