If you read my blog post yesterday about the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Pulitzer win, you're familiar with the name Lou Saldivar. He's the graphics editor at the paper who was on the reporting team that won the prize for explanatory reporting.
Even though he's out of the office this week, he graciously responded to a handful of questions. Here's what he had to say:
How did you begin your research for these graphics and how much time did you spend gathering information?
The project began in January of 2010. The lead writer, Mark Johnson supplied me with the genetic resource material he was using. It's essentially a primer on how the structure of DNA was discovered and how DNA works to produce and regulate the production of proteins.
The story unfolded over the course of the entire year. During that time, the learning was on-going. To say how much time it took in hours would be difficult to say. I can tell you what I needed to understand in order to report on Nicholas' condition. I had to have an understanding of:
1. How DNA works, in general.
2. How specific proteins become mutated and why some are detrimental (not all mutations are necessarily bad).
3. How Nick's mutation contributed to his condition.
Under Nick's history:
1. How his condition began i.e., what symptoms presented themselves and in what order.
2. What were his surgeries, the order they occurred, which conditions were they meant to address.
3. What did he and his family have to do to cope with his changing health.
Under medical care and research:
1. What diagnostic path did the doctors take, and why.
2. What research tools were available and how were they employed.
The reporting was divided so that Mark Johnson focused on medical and Kathleen Gallagher on research.
I followed their lead, so as they collected more information about these three categories, we would meet and discuss what would be important for me to research.
What obstacles, if any, did you face conducting your research?
The biggest challenge was the changing conditions.
The doctors and researchers were breaking new ground, and really, so was Nicholas. His disease, though perhaps similar to others, was really unique. He didn't respond to treatments commonly and successfully used for similar disorders. Sometimes they would make progress only to see him digress again. Nicholas' cycles kept us in rounds of learning and producing work.
It's impossible to feel burdened by any of the obstacles. Nothing we were doing compared to the enormous strength and resilience required by Nicholas and his family.
What can you tell us about the collaboration you had with the lead reporters on the series?
Team reporting is something our staff has been practicing for several years. Our editorial leadership has great vision when it comes to storytelling. They recognize that certain parts of any given story are better told by graphics or photos. We try to play up the strengths of each story form. When we collaborate, we try to identify who will tell which parts of the story. In the end, it gives the reader a much more compelling and didactic package.
How long did it take to build the graphics and get them approved by the reporters and editors?
At least as long as the stories. I know that does not give you a length of time, but I can tell that graphics involve a great deal of drawing and writing. Everything still has to be vetted in the same manner as a story. We start with reliable sources, there are numerous rounds of editing, we check our facts with the experts in the story. In short, our production arc is as long as the entire project. As information is updated, so is the editing.
What about this project is most memorable and why?
In terms of the story, I'm most moved by Nicholas and his unique character. The incredible methods he had for psychologically dealing with his medical challenges were sophisticated beyond his years.
This story is also memorable to me in that we told it first. Explanatory journalism used to be found most often in other periodicals. Thanks to our editorial leadership and storytelling approach, we'll take on any important story. We really do want to give our readers the best stories.
Looking back on the research, in my opinion, there are some extraordinary researchers and doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children's Hospital with backgrounds soundly based in science and medicine. They have the well-measured creative vision and pioneering attitudes that make a story like this possible.
As a final note, the single, most important take-away I got from this story is the realization that we really need to do all we can to get as much science as possible into our school systems. The earlier the better, and as much as we can. The benefits that will come from advancements like we read about in Nicholas' story are made possible by smart, educated individuals using the scientific process to identify problems and devise solutions.
We appreciate your time, Lou! Fantastic work!