Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism: An Interview with The Washington Post's Eli Saslow

[caption id="attachment_309803" align="alignleft" width="300"]Eli Salsow Eli Salsow[/caption]The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow is known for moving into his characters’ lives and writing about them with intimacy and empathy. A former sportswriter, Saslow depends on close observation, a sharp ear for dialogue, and writing that is powerful for its quiet eloquence and clarity.

His six-part series about lives affected by the national food stamp program shows off all those skills. The series won the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the American Society of News Editors’ award for non-deadline writing, and a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

In these stories, Saslow, a reporter on the Post’s national enterprise team, digs beneath stereotypes and shuns easy answers to illuminate the lives of ordinary people – and one politician – for whom food stamps are a bruising, and sometimes infuriating, reality.

The series included pieces on a Rhode Island town that is transformed on the first of the month (when one-third of its residents get their food-stamp funds) and a Washington family that has subsisted on food stamps for four decades. He profiled a politician who believes food stamps are destroying America, and he chronicled the lives of poor children in South Texas who are starved for nutrition, though they’re constantly eating.

The stories, suffused with an authority that comes from deep reporting, pull off a rare double feat: They’re emotionally engaging, and they leave readers smarter.

In an interview with Stephen Buckley, former dean of the Poynter Institute and a member of its board of trustee for Poynter’s e-book Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism, Salsow reveals an important journalistic lesson he learned while working on this six-part series.

No matter how much time you have to do a story, the biggest key is for the people you’re writing about to feel like it matters as much to you as it does to them. And that you are going to do everything you can in the amount of time that you have to get it right and to tell the fullest story possible. Because I think that’s the way people are convinced to let you into their lives -- by knowing that they’re going to be treated in a way that honors that trust. And you can do that in a day. Sometimes you have to do it in a day.

It just means in that day that you have, or in that four hours you have, in every mannerism and in every question, being thoughtful and sincere and being interested in the things you’re writing about. If you’re interested in it, then almost always people are going to be flattered that you’re interested and they’re going to take an active role in making sure that you get it right.

There are so many relationships that are important to making good journalism. But the truth is that where good stories rise or fall is in the relationship between the writer and the people he’s writing about. Doing everything you can to keep that relationship at the center of what we do is the key.

You can read the entire interview with Sallow in the e-book Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism. The e-book features interviews with creators of the year's award-winning work.

  • Ellyn Angelotti

    Since joining The Poynter Institute in 2007, Ellyn Angelotti has helped Poynter explore the journalistic values and the legal challenges related to new technologies, especially social media.


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