Why Tony Horwitz Was One of Journalism’s Greatest Storytellers

Early in my journalism career before I entered the financial public relations field, I made the humbling discovery that I was probably never going to be as good as the journalists I admired. For this, I blame one of those journalists: Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling writer who passed away suddenly last month at age 60.

Horwitz’s first two books, “One for the Road” and “Baghdad Without A Map”—about his travels through the Australian Outback and the Middle East, respectively–helped send me down the path to freelancing in Latin America and eventually joining the staff of The Wall Street Journal.

During my first few years reporting, I learned that there are three types of journalists: 1) the good reporters; 2) the good writers; and 3) those who excel at both. Horwitz was in the third group.

Ask any editor which is the smallest group and he or she will say the third, by a long shot. Ask my editors which group I was in and they’ll suggest a fourth that gets ribbons for participating.

Consider the plight of two of America’s iconic reporters: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portrayed them in an Academy Award-winning film; however, one of the editors at the Washington Post said this about them:

Bob was not a good writer. Others have said English is a second language to Bob. Carl was the writer; Bob did the digging.

I was Horwitz’s colleague only in the sense that my time at the Journal overlapped his. As Ken Wells, who edited most of Horwitz’s Pulitzer series on low-wage jobs in America put it in the Journal’s obit, he was “an amiable genius—the best combination of bulldog reporter and transcendent writer that I’d ever worked with.” Horwitz was remembered as “one of the most talented Journal writers of the past 35 years,” according to the same obit.

Compelling stories are shown, not told. It’s impossible to show a story without dogged reporting. The oft-cited lede of one story in Horwitz’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning series about low wage jobs in America is a good example of this. Horwitz worked at a poultry processing plant and then wrote this:

They call it “the chain,” a swift steel shackle that shuttles dead chickens down a disassembly line of hangers, skinners, gut-pullers and gizzard-cutters. The chain has been rattling at 90 birds a minute for nine hours when the woman working feverishly beside me crumples onto a pile of drumsticks.

“No more,” she whimpers. A foreman with a stopwatch around his neck rushes up. “Come on now,” he bellows. “Pump it up!”

Horwitz eventually left the Journal for a hugely successful career writing books. Many were best sellers thanks to his immersive reporting and peerless storytelling.

His revealing and funny book about Civil War reenactors, among others–“Confederates in the Attic”–is a staple on many school reading lists. The 1998 book foreshadowed the political divisiveness roiling America today.

For his last book, “Spying on the South,” Horwitz retraced the travels of future Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted when he was an “undercover correspondent” in the South for the “up-and-coming” New York Times. Horwitz was on the road promoting the book when he tragically passed away.

So why do so many continue in journalism if the prospect of ever becoming the third type of journalist, like Horwitz, seems slim?

To be sure, unless we’re Tony Horwitz or one of his editors, we won’t ever know how many times he swung and whiffed. But we do know that he kept swinging for the fences.

I could say that hitting singles and an occasional double or triple was enough for me and the majority of other journalists. But that would make us all seem like under-achieving masochists, and journalism isn’t one of those careers that pays well for such misery.

I was unlikely to regularly hit it out of the park like Horwitz, but I kept swinging because every once in a while–with my editors’ help!–I smacked it over the centerfield fence. It’s glorious when that happens and that’s enough to keep trying.

By Tom Vogel, Senior Vice President



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