Reporting and Explanatory Journalism – From Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan’s ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

by Dalton Cox

Did you know that the first page – center column – of The Wall Street Journal has contained some of the best and most creative examples of American journalism? Despite the tedious connotation of “business reporting,” the phrase merely describes a type of explanatory journalism, which may be creative and serve as a model for watchdog vigilance.

William E. Blundell spent three decades as a reporter and editor of The Wall Street Journal. In 1982 Blundell won ASNE the non-deadline award for his work; “The Life of a Cowboy: Drudgery and Danger” delves behind the contemporary myth of the cowboy to reveal the few remaining non-romanticized men who work for cowbosses.

Untitled Infographic-9
Infographic by Dalton Cox

“I try to teach reporters that if they have an important point they want to make, make it repetitiously but in different ways,” William E Blundell said. “Make it with a figure, make it with an antidote and then wrap it up with a quote.”

Bundell reminds reporters to tease folks a little in the lead; they won’t mind. The introductory section of the article, which differentiates between the men who adopt the style of a cowboy and the true cowboys, ends with a nut graph that introduces the theme of the article and the man on which the article focuses.

“Finally, there is a little band of men like Jim Miller,” Blundell writes. “They still know as second nature the ways of horse and cow, the look of sunrise over the empty land – and the hazards, sheer drudgery and rock-bottom pay that go with perhaps the most overromanticized of American jobs.”

Blundell reinstates the theme of his piece several times throughout, so that the reader is subconsciously reminded of Blundell’s claim that real cowboys are dwindling in to the myth of Americana.

“Mr. Miller doesn’t expect any trouble finding day jobs on ranches,” Blundell writes, before concluding his article. “At a time when there are so few real cowboys left, he says, there is always work for a top hand.”

William E. Blundell
William E. Blundell

Blundell uses a formula to outline explanatory writing. Initially, a reporter must know the history behind what he or she is reporting, and consider the scope. A reporter must then reveal the reasons for what is happening, the positive and negative impacts, the long-term future consequences, and if contrary forces exists.

Explanatory writers often face another challenge. When writing about the technicalities of business finances or the technology behind a new model airplane, it is easy to produce tedious writing. According to former Seattle Times reporter Peter Rinearson, the key to avoiding this trap is to reward readers with interesting nuggets that will continuously move the audience through a story.

Rinearson’s “Making It Fly: Designing the 757” describes the creation of a new Boeing aircraft. Rinearson was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Not only did the writer extensively research the piece, but he also kept his writing interesting. Of course, the most remarkable tidbit was the realization of the “the chicken test,” in which engineers test a plane’s windows and the surrounding metal by using a compressed-air gun to fire sedated chickens at the plane.

Editorial writing also presents its unique challenges. Michael Gartner won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing. Like Blundell, Gartner also relies on a imprecise formula.

Michael Gartner
Michael Gartner

“The editorials that I like best are… stories with lots and lots of facts and a viewpoint that builds either through repetition or an alliteration or wordplay,” Gartner writes. “And then cumulates with an ending that’s not a whack over the head with a two-by-four… Rarely do I get so outraged I call somebody a jerk.”

Gartner also believes in keeping readers on their toes by purposely changing pace. Furthermore, his 1995 piece for The Daily Tribune of Ames, Iowa, “Property Tax Exemptions: Legal but Terribly Unfair” demonstrates that – although numbers can be numb – numbers can also illuminate and surprise a reader if used well. From the opening lines, Gartner uses specific figures from an exemplary case as the base of his article.


Other great examples of explanatory writing

– “Too much of too little” by Eli Saslow of The Washington Post – Saslow won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her work that illuminated the prevalent use of food stamps in the United States. This piece uses primarily a narrative style to confront its audience with the realities of contemporary poverty.

– “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad” by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of The New York Times – This example of business reporting disillusions readers about the manufacture of Apple technology in China.

“However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.”

– “The Burger That Shattered Her Life” by Michael Moss of The New York Times – Moss reveals food safety issues and ineffective federal regulations within the food industry, framed by a disturbing account of one woman’s severe food poisoning.

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