Susan White has edited 3 winning entries working from 3 different media outlets
Every journalist who has had Susan White as an editor, myself included, would likely say she has this one tiny flaw: She can drive you to a Maalox addiction.
A perfectionist, she won’t let a story rest until it is, in her mind, as good as it possibly can be, from word choice to cadence to structure to emotional pull. I’m even talking about a weather story.
Every journalist who has worked with Susan White would also likely say: She brings out your very best.
And she’s proven it yet again. White, who lives in North Park, was the editor behind a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning package on a catastrophic oil spill that had gone mostly unreported. This is the third time she’s edited a Pulitzer Prize-winning package. She’s also edited an entry that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
For a layperson, this accomplishment might be hard to understand. So think of Meryl Streep and Oscars.
“I just find it thrilling,” she said of working on winning stories. “There’s really nothing like it, to be a part of something special. I’ve just been lucky to be a part of this several times now.”
You won’t find White’s name on the winning entries because the reporters get the recognition. But make no mistake: It’s no accident stories White edits get this level of respect. She’s a force.
Take this most recent Pulitzer, which was awarded for national reporting. White is the executive editor of a small and relatively unknown online venture called InsideClimate News, which boasts just a handful of staffers and contributors. One is 14 years old. (OK, she’s 26.)
Yet InsideClimate beat out The Washington Post (of Watergate fame) and The Boston Globe (no slouch itself), which were the other finalists for national reporting.
“I’m most proud of this one,” White said of her third Pulitzer triumph. “We’re the little guys. I mean, we had nothing.”
As an editor, White is an enigma. She’s sweet. A grandmother, she makes quilts in her spare time. But she won’t stand for laziness or anything less than 100 percent commitment. Her love of craft is overwhelming. It inspires. And, it exhausts. When your story is done, it’s not done. She makes you read it aloud to her. That results, invariably, in more changes. And more Maalox.
“I do what I would want an editor to do for me,” she said. “Yes, I’m obsessive, but that’s how I am about myself.”
Pulitzer No. 1
White’s first hand in a winning Pulitzer entry came in the traditional fashion: while working at a newspaper. She was an editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, which is where I had the pleasure of working with her. She helped edit the package of investigative stories the newspaper did on U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The paper found that Cunningham, a former fighter pilot, had taken bribes from defense contractors and then awarded them fat government contracts.
It landed him in prison.
The newspaper captured the Pulitzer in 2006 for that watchdog work, and the champagne poured. Here’s a link to the entry. But little did White know, nor did most of us at the time, that the world of newspapering was about to blow up.
The newspaper model, reliant on advertising, was beginning to crater as advertisers migrated toward the Internet. The Union-Tribune, like many others, started cutting costs. The paper’s Washington, D.C., bureau, which broke the Cunningham story? It was soon shuttered.
In 2008, White took a buyout. While many ink-stained newspaper people her age — she was past 60 — settled for early retirement, White did something quite the opposite. She went to a new online, investigative venture called ProPublica, in New York City.
Pulitzer No. 2
ProPublica’s founders felt the start-up was needed to fill the growing void in long-form and in-depth reporting caused by the staff cuts at newspapers and other media. It quickly attracted some of the best journalists in the nation.
White was in heaven.
“It was quite amazing,” she said. “Everyone was smart and we had a mission. But there was a lot of pressure too. We felt the weight of a lot of responsibility. Everybody was looking at us.”
That’s because ProPublica was backed by major funding and expected to produce results, given its stable of exceptional journalists, such as Sheri Fink, whose resume includes a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a medical degree from Stanford University.
She was one of the writers with whom White worked with. Fink was taking a deeper look at what occurred at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Doctors and nurses, cut off from the world, scrambled to make life-and-death decisions.
White has a love of and a talent for editing narrative-style reporting. Basically, that means the reporter writes a news story the way he or she writes a novel — only everything is true. That’s the approach that Fink took when writing what would turn out to be the second Pulitzer Prize-winning entry in which White took part in: “Deadly Choices at Memorial.” It was the first story originated by an online venture that would win the award. Here’s a link to it.
White remembers having Fink lay out the outline of her story in chapter form by using sheets of paper. The office floor was littered with them.
“We could barely walk inside,” she said.
Fink left ProPublica to expand the story to book form, and the result, “Five Days at Memorial,” is being published this year. She credits White with “wise guidance on structure and storytelling” to help make it possible.
“Susan White is one of the hardest-working, most dedicated editors I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” Fink said. “She has a brilliance for shaping complex material into compelling stories and she will not call off the hunt for the right word, the right phrase, the right structure, until the work is the best that it can be.”
Just like I said, except for the Maalox.
White would have remained at ProPublica — she took part in other award-winning projects — but after several years, family called her back to San Diego. She was planning to edit books. It seemed her long career in journalism — her first job was as a TV critic for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. — was coming to a close.
But an intern at ProPublica told her about InsideClimate, which, it turned out, needed an editor.
Pulitzer No. 3
Unlike ProPublica, which partnered with such heavyweights as The New York Times and 60 Minutes, InsideClimate was not exactly as well-heeled. It’s dedicated to environmental news reporting.
White took the job because she thought its mission was laudable and she could work from home. She didn’t think she’d steer it to a Pulitzer.
But this is Susan White we’re talking about.
One of the stories the website was working on concerned the proposed expansion of the Keystone Pipeline System through Midwest states. The pipeline, if fully realized, would stretch from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
White sent one of her reporters, Lisa Song, to talk to landowners about their concerns. White had to make certain Song was old enough to rent a car. Luckily, she had just turned 25.
Song did her job and then some. She learned that many folks were concerned about the proposed pipeline’s stability, particularly because of a spill they had heard about in southwestern Michigan. White had not heard of the spill. She and her team researched it and found that little reporting had been done on it.
“Part ways in, I realized we had something here,” she said.
The spill, which occurred in 2010, was not a traditional one. The pipeline carried Canadian tar sands oil, which is thick and gooey. It has to be treated with chemicals to make it able to slosh through the pipeline. That end product is called dilbit. The chemicals needed to create it, though, evaporate into the air if so exposed. So when the dilbit leaked out of the pipeline, it soon became gloppy, gunky tar sands oil again.
Regular oil floats on water, so there are ways to clean it up. This stuff doesn’t float. A million gallons spilled and 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River were contaminated. But no national media came running because it happened just months after the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and that was getting worldwide attention.
White wanted to make it news. And she did so by having the writers tell the story of the spill in a narrative form, through the eyes of residents and public health officials.
“I craft stories to get the widest possible audience,” White said.
After that, she starts attacking the story in a more traditional fashion, by having her staff write news stories that explore how and why such a thing could happen and what’s being done to make it right. “If you pull people in, they’ll read those other stories,” she said. “They’re emotionally invested.”
The result: “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.” Here’s a link to it.
While White is thrilled about the Pulitzer, it’s not for the reasons you might think. It’s certainly not for money or fame. (Remember, her name is not on the award.)
“I don’t think of the Pulitzer as some sort of goal,” she said. “The cool thing about a Pulitzer is that it brings more eyes to the story. It gets policymakers involved. It brings change.”
(And finally, a link to a Susan White/Mike Stetz collaboration, which, for some odd reason, did not win a Pulitzer.)