Career Profile: Aspiring Pulitzer Prize-Winner Mark Johnson Wins a Pulitzer Prize for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Published on
May 6, 2011

I'm on the phone with journalist Mark Johnson and he is rummaging through his desk. He's recently won the Pulitzer Prize and is now sharing his list of health and science references. "Whenever I've moved from one paper to another, these are the permanent things that move with me," he explains, papers rustling in the background.

Last week, Johnson's reporting partner, Kathleen Gallagher, talked to Career GPS about her career before and after winning the Pulitzer Prize with Johnson and others at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This week, Johnson talks about the series "One in a Billion: A boy's life, a medical mystery," that put them in the spotlight. He discusses his career and what makes a great news story.

[Find new health media job opportunities at the end of the post and keep up with Career GPS via RSS.]

In January, he told Nieman Storyboard that he and Gallagher take different stances on desk orderliness:

My desk is a disaster. During the time we were actually doing the writing or going through interview transcripts, Kathleen would sit at my desk. In between sections of doing something, she'd just start straightening. I'm used to living with my mess, but other people aren't.

Johnson eventually finds his books and starts rattling off names and mini-reviews:

Mosby's Medical Dictionary ("One warning: It's terrific, but it's very technical and it's got really gnarly pictures on almost every page and it has a lot of photos of really horrible diseases.")

Dictionary of Biology (an Oxford Paperback reference)

Science Dictionary (also from Oxford)

Scientific American Books textbook Molecular Cell Biology ("There's a whole bunch of stuff resting on it, so I'm afraid it will fall over.")

Stem Cell Now ("It's a great stem cell book -- it's a really good read, it's very clear, and it has a good -- what do you call it -- glossary of terms.")

"Those are just the basic ones -- I have some others I've collected," he says. His excitement about his science books is surprising, considering Johnson once struggled to get Cs in high school science classes. So here is his first story-lesson: Be curious and do your homework.

Before I was really a science reporter, I happened to be working on a science story. It was about a blue whale that washed ashore in Rhode Island. Different scientists from around the country had come--because blue whales are very rare --and they got pieces of the blue whale. I got really curious about that. What would you be using those pieces for? What kinds of experiments? One person got the eye, one person got the larynx, which was 11 feet long and really stank to hell -- it was awful. But this woman had driven seven hours from New York and seven hours back with this stinking hulk of rotting flesh in her van. I had this curiosity -- I basically got a list that a federal agency had of each researcher and what they got. Systematically I went though and talked to them. I called a woman at Tufts -- she got the ear drum. I said, "I'd like to come visit you and find out what you learned about the eardrum."

She started talking about how the ear drum works and I kind of stopped her and said, "What does this part do? What does that do?" On the phone, she said, "I don't have the time to teach you biology 101, but maybe before you come up and talk to me you can buy a biology dictionary, and that will help you." On one hand, it sounded like a harsh comment but on the other hand it was a great piece of advice. I started collecting science and medical dictionaries. It was enormously helpful because you can learn most of that stuff if you're willing to read. There's definitely a reward to doing a little extra homework.

The transcript of the rest of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer. Was that a goal you had or something you aspired to when you began your career?

It's definitely something I aspired to. When I was in college I was one of the editors for my university newspaper in Canada at the University of Toronto. In 1986, I remember seeing The New York Times' write-up on the winners from that year and the incredible work they had done. I ended up sending away for a series that John Camp wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch. It was a winner in features. I didn't go to a journalism school so I had no idea what went into that kind of story. I remember poring over it and being wowed at every turn by how good it was. It was probably from that time, at least in the back of my mind, that someday that was a standard I wanted to aspire to.

When you chose English as your major, was it because you liked writing, journalism or something else?

I liked writing. I really liked reading. I loved literature. My grandfather was a writer, he was a biographer. He wrote a biography of Charles Dickens. When we were kids, he would read Dickens to us. All of us, all the grandkids, we just fell in love with writing and reading. He did that. So I just wanted to go someplace where I'd get to really focus on it. I knew there were a lot of things I wasn't good at -- I wasn't good at math, I wasn't good at science. I wanted to focus on literature and writing. I took some creative writing courses just to learn how to write short stories.

Looking back, do you appreciate that choice or do you think you should have gone to journalism school?

For a long, long time I had some regrets about it. It was always insecurity, kind of a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I was in newsrooms with people who knew a lot more about what they were doing than I did. I now think that some of that had to do not so much with journalism school, but the amount of time that you spend doing it and learning how to do it. There were just people who had really worked at being reporters a lot more than I had.

I had a chance to go to journalism at the end of my first year as a reporter at paper. I was at a really small six-day-a-week paper and I had applied to some journalism schools and got in. But I didn't want to take the time out and I wasn't such a great student, to be honest. I ended up feeling when I graduated like I was lucky to get my degree. I didn't know that I would have the discipline to go back and get a masters or a PhD. Once I got into professional writing, even at a really small paper, it was such a rush. I loved it so much that even though the pay wasn't super big, it was just so much fun. I didn't like the idea of stopping.

When I sent away for a copy of that story, I kind of made that my journalism school. I used to send away for copies of all the really good stories that I'd hear about. I've got a big collection of great features and investigations. I read them and that was kind of my journalism school, reading really good stuff.

You've been part of reporting teams that have been finalists for Pulitzers twice before, in 2003 and 2006. What do you think made the difference for One in a Billion? What makes a Pulitzer-caliber story?

That's a good question. I honestly don't know how much of a difference there is between winners and finalists sometimes. I made it a habit early on that when I'd send away for stories, I'd send away for the finalists as well as the winners. Some people are going to read a story by a finalist and think it's a lot better than the one that won. I've thought that sometimes. It does help you to understand how people put together something, you know, good. I tried to deconstruct stories to figure out, how did they get that? After a while, you can see how really good reporters structure their stories, how they lay out information so that it's in a step-wise fashion. If it's a complex idea, they introduce just the building blocks so that you have enough to get the next step in the process. It's about not overwhelming a reader, but just really helping them.

What about the "One in a Billion" story do you think resonated so much, even before you won the Prize?

I'm guessing to some extent what qualities judges saw in it. What we liked about it was, one, it was breaking news. It was actually telling something that people didn't know had happened. The only place that this had been reported before was at a scientific conference. Then, just before the series started, it was in a medical journal but one that very few, if any of our readers would have actually noticed.

The other thing is that the idea of personalized medicine is something that has been thrown around a lot for a good number of years. We were very lucky. We came along at a point when somehow this idea had reached a tipping point. Instead of just talking about it, one place was willing to actually try it. Instead of speculating about what the pitfalls and complications and ethical questions would be, we were able to see them. I think that probably helped.

A quality that you can find in a lot of these kinds of stories, that judges like, is that very good access. We were able to take people up close because we were there for a lot of it. That's an important quality, I think.

How long have you been a journalist? How did you get your start at that small paper?

This is my 25th year and the first paper I was at was a weekly on Cape Cod that doesn't exist anymore. After college, it was the first place that offered me a job. I applied to a lot of places, probably 30 or 40. I had no idea how to do it. Because I didn't go to journalism school, no one had told me that it was not the smartest idea to, right out of college, send a letter to The New York Times, which I did. I sent a letter to every place you'd be a fool to send a letter to right out of college. So I racked up an impressive list of rejection letters. Over time I got more and more desperate and I was applying to smaller and smaller places. I even applied for some technical writing jobs with engineering companies. It was so depressing that I almost felt like it would have been worse if I had gotten those jobs. Well, it was hard to tell what was worse: the fact that I wasn't getting them or to actually get them and have to do that kind of writing.

The one that I got, it was such a small paper with a circulation of 8 or 9,000. It was right on the very end of Cape Cod and I don't know if anybody else applied for the job, to be honest. There were three reporters total. The newspaper was in a house with three stories. The first story was advertising, the second story was where the reporters worked and the paper was laid out, and the third floor was where the publisher's wife lived with a dog. It was a really crazy situation. My boss was kind of frightening. He yelled at us a lot and threw things and pitched fits all the time. I only lasted three months there. I was actually sending out my resume about a week after I got there.

You've worked at many different papers over the years -- I count five, not including the Journal Sentinel, in your Pulitzer bio. How long have you been with the Journal Sentinel and what do you now look for in a newsroom?

It will be 11 years in July that I've been here. This was the first place that I've ever come to work where I didn't hear about some better time, some golden time that the paper had years before I got there. After a while it gets really frustrating when people tell you how good it used to be. I took the interview in Milwaukee just to see what it was like, whether there was something better out there. I was in the rare position that I actually didn't have to take the job. I wasn't miserable where I was--I was actually reasonably happy. The thing that wowed me was that, unlike every other place I'd worked, people weren't looking back to glory days. They were really hungry to, sort of, arrive. All the editors that I met at Milwaukee had this hunger. They would say, "I think we're good now but we're not there yet and we really want to get there."

There was real, deep passion for the work. They were doing all the things that you should do if you're trying to improve. They were having good people come talk to them, they were having brown bags where reporters talked about stories that they worked on. They were really developing a culture of excellence, of valuing good work.

I had been at a paper before where we had a couple of days devoted to training us in phone manners. We actually had that before we had a seminar on writing. I would get frustrated talking about things other than writing and reporting, which were the two things that I wanted to know about. The good thing about Milwaukee, in my opinion, is that they were really talking about things that mattered and trying to get better.

Kathleen Gallagher also had a lot of praise for the editors at the Journal Sentinel. What advice do you have for journalists who are just starting their careers or those looking to make changes in their careers? What should they look for in newsrooms?

One of the things I would definitely be very open about is, what kinds of opportunities will I get? If I really work hard, what kinds of chances will open up for me? At one newspaper where I worked for a while, just about half the staff were out in bureaus. A question I don't think I did ask, but should have, is how much movement is there between the bureaus and downtown? What I learned belatedly is that virtually no one was moving between the bureaus and downtown. Everyone who had the good downtown jobs were staying, were lifers. The only movement was from one bureau to another bureau, which after a while gets really frustrating because it kind of sets up a bit of a caste system. The thing is, that can be okay as long as you know going into it what to expect. So that's a good question. It's kind of the newspaper version of, how much opportunity is there for advancement?

If there are kinds of stories that you like doing, something you did at your college paper or something you've read and want to be able to do, ask, "If I got this story, how would you treat it?" Do they tell you to go off and do it or do they hedge and ask what else is going on? You just want to get a feeling whether your opinion will be listened to.

You have to understand that in your first few jobs, it's pretty hard to get privileges, to get the freedom to work on really outrageously interesting things. You have to build trust. The first time editors hear you pitch something that's very work-intensive or ambitious, all these thoughts make come into their head: This could be a rabbit hole that this reporter goes down and spends three months and then doesn't know how to write. You have to show them that their trust is well-placed. That was something that I sure didn't know from the get-go. It took a long while of seeing how other people did it before I could learn it myself.

What do think is more important these days: building that individual trust with editors or specializing and having them trust that you understand the subject very well?

I think they're both important. Specializing, in my opinion, is a very smart idea because if you learn enough about something that is unique or difficult or complicated and editors see that you've built up an expertise, that's good for the paper. What keeps people coming back to us, as opposed to other media, are places that we have unique expertise.

You've covered so many topics -- hanging chads and 9/11, all sorts of things. How did you become a health and science reporter?

I sort of drifted into it. I mentioned earlier, I was actually really lousy at science classes in high school. I really mean it. I struggled to get my Cs. I didn't even known I was interested in it but I read this terrific biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick. The experience of reading it was kind of revelatory to me because I had always thought scientists were sort of--well, I thought they were boring. And I thought science was boring because I didn't understand it. My head got all turned around when I read this book because I saw how they had this ability to live in their own world and ask complicated questions and think deeply. If you could actually understand it, there were things about it that were very beautiful and sort of inspiring.

There's a part of that Gleick book when he describes how Richard Feynman has an almost eureka moment. He was at Cornell and he had already made his reputation. He hadn't won his Nobel yet but he was considered one of the most brilliant young physicists in the country. But he had suddenly become very unproductive and he didn't know how to get himself out of this rut. One day he's at the Cornell dining hall and he happened to see someone throw a Cornell dinner plate with the university insignia on it. They threw it like a Frisbee. And he noticed that as the plate flew, it both spun and wobbled up and down. In that moment, he thought there must be some sort of relationship between the spinning and the wobbling. He rushed back to his classroom, his blackboard, and worked it out mathematically. I thought that was so cool, to have the kind of mind that can turn on dime like that and ask a fundamental question. It's just a marvelous example of pure curiosity. That really got me interested in science.

How long have you been the health and science reporter at the Journal Sentinel?

When I first got here, the reason I reported on 9/11 and the space shuttle disaster was because I was a general assignment reporter. I've been a health and science reporter since 2008, so about three years.

Kathleen Gallagher mentioned that there might be a book from the "One in a Billion" story. Does winning the Pulitzer Prize affect your future plans?

I don't know yet. It's still fresh and I'm not sure. We had been talking about doing the book and got an agent before the prizes were announced. We started those discussions in February, but I think that winning helps, certainly. It won't guarantee a book deal -- we've already had a few rejections. That's one of the things you learn about books. It's just a whole other ballgame. Even if you think, "I'm a  big shot. I should be deciding whether I want to do it for you," books are a while different thing. You have to start from scratch.

Do you want to stay in Milwaukee?

Yeah. To be honest, I have no desire to be in a huge, unmanageable city. I like the size of Milwaukee. And what's not to like about the paper? We're getting to do stuff that's comparable to what some of the biggest and best papers in the country are doing. Only we don't have to pay New York rents and go through all that. The opportunities are here and, to be honest, Wisconsin is as good a place to cover the news as anywhere. I've been here almost 11 years now and I'm not even close to getting bored.

Is there anything else you want the ReportingonHealth community to know about your career or how you built it?

There's one thing I would recommend -- I tell a lot of younger journalists this. I belong to a writers' group of reporters from newspapers and magazines called Gangrey. They just share; they post good stories they read, sometimes their own, sometimes other people's, and talk about them. It's a really inspiring group.

Read more career profiles in Career GPS:

Kathleen Gallagher what it takes to win a Pulitzer Prize

André Picard's 24 Years at One Newspaper

Former Boston Globe Deputy Editor Karen Weintraub Turns Freelancer

Linda Marsa and Laura Starecheski: Freelance careers take time to develop

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