First Edition: Jacqui Banaszynski

By Samar Khoury

Journalism might not have been the first career choice for Jacqui Banaszynski, but it turned out to be a wise decision. 

She has a Pulitzer Prize, award-winning projects and more than 30 years of reporting and editing experience under her belt.

Banaszynski worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. During her career, she followed a dogsled expedition across Antarctica and wrote about topics ranging from beauty pageants to the Olympics to refugee camps.

She was also a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for “Trail of Tears,” detailing the famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

Banaszynski won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her piece, “AIDS in the Heartland,” for which she and photographer Jean Pieri spent 15 months with a gay farm couple until they died of the disease. Both of those pieces won her and her newspaper the St. Paul Pioneer Press considerable acclaim.

Today, Banaszynski lives in Seattle but during the school year teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she serves as the Knight Chair in Editing.

During her years of reporting and editing, Banaszynski learned valuable lessons that she hopes to teach to her students.

Q: What tips do you have for young journalists?

A: If you want to do great writing, you have to do great reporting. It’s more important for a young journalist to learn how the world works, to learn how to report on the world, than it is to have pretty writing.

If you’re going to do immersion journalism and focus on one person or one situation to reveal a bigger social issue, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right situation, the characters, you’ve got to have access. You have to be completely transparent, both with your story subjects about your method and the consequences of talking to a reporter, and with the readers, the viewers, the public about how you did the story.

You always need other readers. No matter where you are in your career, you need to have other readers look at your work as it’s progressing.  We do this work for other people, not for ourselves.

Q: What was the biggest lesson you learned when writing your Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “AIDS in the Heartland”?

A:  This is the piece where I really learned that you need to have the right story subject. One big, big, big lesson was negotiating partnership. Before we went into the story and as we were doing the story, we’d constantly go back and negotiate what our partnership was, what the understanding of transparency and conditions were. That was huge because the people we were writing about and their family and extended community had a lot of reservations about being a part of the story. I had to constantly be upfront with them about what we were doing, why we were doing it, why we thought it was so important, why we thought their role in it was so important, and what our obligation was to them in terms of fact-checking, honesty, transparency, but also that our ultimate allegiance was to the public and the truth of the story, which means that sometimes we were going to write things they weren’t comfortable with, but they wouldn’t be surprised by.

Q: What did this story teach you in regards to objectivity and attachment to your subjects that young journalists can keep in mind?

A: We had to be very aware that we needed to write the story for the public and not to please the people we were writing about, and that was difficult because we had spent so much time with Dick [Hanson] and Bert [Henningson] and had come to care about [the couple]. That means we had to have people around us who read the story skeptically.

The words objectivity and detachment are thrown around a lot in journalism, and when you do stories like that, they’re problematic, because you can’t do a story like that without investing your own self, including your emotions. But you’ve got to remain purposeful about your investment and who that investment ultimately is for. The answer to that is the public, your readers. But you’ve really got to be willing to cross boundaries and lines that aren’t typically crossed in traditional civic journalism. Its why it’s so important to have a good partner. Jean Pieri [the photographer] and I were good partners to each other. We held each other up.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions you tend to hear about journalism in your classroom?

A: Some of the students are not plugged in. A lot of them are still really connected to the legacy masthead such as the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. The digital world is emerging so fast, and they haven’t been plugged into those possibilities, as they need to be to go where the jobs are. Journalists and the public need to be smart consumers when they open up and see where they want to work and read.

One of the keys to good journalism is to be interested in how the world works. You need to be passionate about and interested in the story you’re writing about, not just the things you’re interested in. I tell my students all the time if they only want to write what they’re interested in, I’ll give them a journal and wish them a very happy life and hope they keep in touch. If they want to be a journalist, they need to get interested in what they have to write about. Every story becomes practice for the next story.  

Q: Can you tell me about your ‘have a beer theory’ and how it would be beneficial for journalists?

A: I call it the “Banaszynski Beer Rule” and it means  when you go do a story as a journalist, all you have is your own curiosity and your own mind. When we get a story assignment or are chasing a story, pursuing a story, it’s very natural to then get really focused in on what the story needs by conventional journalistic standards. The beer rule basically says you need to expand your mental TV screen to include people who aren’t journalists, people you’re writing for, the public, and you need to plug in to their curiosity and their interests. So you find a person or a few people who have no interest in the story you’re doing, and ask what they would want to know or what they’re interested in or what they want to learn. That helps you plug in to the public you’re writing for.

The gig came from when I was going out to do this interview and I didn’t know what to ask this person. I stopped somebody in the newsroom who had no interest in the subject I was writing about, and I said ‘what would you like to know?’ And he said ‘not a goddamn thing.’ So I finally said, ‘if you could sit down with this person and have a beer and ask her any question in the world, what would you want to ask?’ And it shifted the conversation and allowed him to say, ‘well if I could just really ask her anything, here’s what I’d want to know.’ And it wasn’t a journalistic question; it was a human question. And it taught me so much when I did that.  

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