Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where Great Journalism Still Thrives

Over the past few weeks, I've had the honor and the privilege of judging many of the nation's best city and regional magazines for the annual awards handed out by the University of Missouri's J-School, my alma mater. And after reading quite a few of these magazines, I can say that I've been remarkably impressed, even surprised in some cases, with the magazines that typically report on the best chiefs, bartenders, or cosmetic surgeons in any given area of the country. Time after time, amid the listings of restaurants, clubs and spas, I've come across some of the best journalism in America: gripping narrative, compelling drama, and natural, vivid storytelling that draws you into something you never thought you would be interested in.

If I were teaching narrative writing, I wouldn't hesitate to assign any of these standout stories to my students. More importantly, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend these pieces to readers who cherish and respect the promise of what journalism can be when it is practiced at the highest level. These are pieces that I would have loved to edit myself, or even better, would have loved to had the joy to report and write.

"Soldier of Misfortune," by Beth Hawkins. Here is the highly compelling story of a guy, down on his luck, who went off to Iraq, not as a member of the U.S. military but as a paid private security guard for a contractor. The job ultimately cost him his life. He was captured by Iraqi insurgents, held for ransom, and ultimately tortured. I'll let you find out how this tragic story ends. Published by Minnesota Monthly, the story is a stunning example of great storytelling.

"Trashed: The Death of Michael York and How Heroin has Invaded the Chicago Suburbs," by Bryan Smith. Published in Chicago magazine, this gripping story brings home to suburbia the tragedy of drug use and addiction. It's the tale of a teenager whose body turned up in an alley on the west side of Chicago. The high school student died of an apparent overdose from heroin after a weekend party in a suburban mansion. To cover up the accident, his "friends" dumped the body in an alley in the snow face-down at the foot of a dumpster.

"Free Man," by Tony Rehagen. Published by Indianapolis Monthly, this is the story of a man who spent 23 years in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. The writer catches up with him two years after his release and writes a brilliantly evocative story of how hard if not impossible it is to put your life back once you're jailed--even when you never should have been in prison in the first place.

"The Last Days of My Left Breast," by Viva Las Vegas. Published by Portland Monthly, this candid story is the harrowing first-person tale of a young woman who discovers that she has breast cancer. Because she is a stripper in a city club, the loss of her left breast not only has traumatic emotional and physical consequences. There are economic issues as well. It's an exceptionally honest and well-written account by a non-journalist and it makes for gripping reading.

"Mike Leach is Thinking," by S.C. Gwynne. This Texas Monthly cover story deftly provides a multi-dimensional portrait of a pirate-crazy man who may be the best college football coach in the country. I am no football fan. In fact, as a lifelong rabid baseball fan, I rather dislike football. Yet I could not put this exceptionally-crafted profile down.

"The River Lady," by Linda Vaccariello. This story, published in Cincinnati magazine, is the fascinating tale of a woman whose body was pulled from the Ohio River three years ago. Yet, no one could identify who she was. "No one was missing her," as one investigator put it.

"Wrongful Death," by Jason Fagone. Yet another narrative that is almost impossible to put down, this piece is the behind-the-scenes story of the demise of one of Philadelphia's most famous law firms. Published in Philadelphia magazine, the drama opens when a young lawyer at the firm receives a simple text message from a friend: "sorry to hear about your firm."

"But the Dream Should Die," by Joe Keohane. A highly provocative yet convincingly argued essay that explains why Ted Kennedy should be the last Kennedy we ever elect. It smartly ends a powerful portfolio of stories in Boston magazine on Sen. Kennedy's life and legacy. As the headline of the piece puts it: "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, but the dream should die."

So even in this age of budget cuts, layoffs, newspaper and magazine closings, journalism that informs, inspires and entertains is being published every day in both likely and unlikely places. Thank God for that.


  1. John,
    Thanks for sharing these stories. City and regional magazines definitely illustrate the outstanding storytelling you mention. They profile real people.

    When I was a journalism student at Mizzou, I was assigned several stories from city publications to help teach narrative form, just as you mentioned. I'm thankful for that.

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  2. Sara,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. The stories I cited are just a small though representative sample of superb journalism in a day and age when editorial budgets are shrinking, publications are closing down, and journalists are losing their jobs. It's quite inspiring to see all the good work that is still being published far beyond the national or international heavyweights like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, etc.


  3. John...This isn't a story comment. I got an error message on your e-mail.

    I admittedly have no clue what your business is going to be. Does your curation service possibly save articles on the internet after the plug is pulled on the host website? I’ve written 36 columns in the past two years for Sales & Marketing Management and Training. In my view, my body of work for Nielsen is markedly superior to what I've produced for BusinessWeek (no offense). When those magazines close next Thursday, all that work is basically wiped away. Does C-Change offer anything to help prevent that?


    Jeff Schmitt

  4. Jeff,

    Depends. For the niche business areas we intend to cover, curate and create community around, yes. For general areas, not. I would make sure you have digital records of all your work so you can at some point transfer to another place.


  5. Hi, John~

    Viva Las Vegas's publisher here. Thanks so much for your mention of her article in PORTLAND MONTHLY. Needless to say, this woman's life contiues to offer lots to intrigue.

    I just wanted to note that Viva is actually a published writer, with publications like THE NEW YORK TIMES, VILLAGE VOICE, EXOTIC MAGAZINE, and PORTLAND MERCURY under her belt. Writing is just another of her many creative endeavors (

    Thanks again and all best,
    ~Jen Weaver-Neist
    Publisher, Dame Rocket Press

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