Eli Saslow '04 returns to Newhouse to talk about his Pulitzer and why earning trust with sources is critical

By Earica Parrish

October 13, 2014

From his first article for The Daily Orange about a walk-on for the tennis team to his impressive, Pulitzer-Prize-winning series about food stamps, there is nothing Eli Saslow can’t do.

Saslow ’04, who works for The Washington Post, returned on Oct. 9 to the Newhouse School at Syracuse University to talk about his career, why it’s important to follow your interests and the importance of being an ethical reporter.

Saslow won the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism in April for a six-part series he wrote for The Washington Post about food stamps.

Steve Davis, chair of the newspaper and online journalism department, moderated the discussion, which included a lengthy period of questions from the mostly student audience. Davis began by giving the audience a glimpse into Eli’s final days at the D.O. by reading Saslow’s letter to readers before leaving his position as sports editor in 2003.

“In a lot of ways I grew up (at the Daily Orange), from a sports fan to a sports writer,” Saslow wrote. Davis teased him about the part of the letter in which Saslow writes his tennis team walk-on story was “worthy of a Pulitzer,” even though the DO didn’t publish it.

During Saslow’s time at Newhouse, he says he made many discoveries about what he loved to do. He started as a broadcast and digital journalism major, but slowly realized that news writing was more his strong suit.

That led him to write sports for The Daily Orange, which helped him land a job covering high school sports for The Washington Post. It’s still a passion, he says, noting that he’s writing a handful of stories a year for ESPN the magazine.

Sports “has some of the inherent characteristics of drama that allowed you to write things that are fun and that are narrative,” Saslow says.

During his first few years at the Post, Saslow says he enjoyed writing stories that allowed him to spend more time with his subjects. He worked on longer, more narrative pieces on the side while covering high school sports. He spent a couple of hours on them each week and usually brought one to his editors every few months. Eventually they asked Saslow to write more in-depth pieces about politics and policy. Saslow says he was initially hesitant.

“Complicated stories are the hardest ones, especially if you want to tell stories that are interesting,” Saslow says.

Saslow says he looks for stories of the times—what are the current issues facing Americans today? Through research, Saslow discovered that during the last decade, the national food stamp program had ballooned. He began reporting on the topic and found a topic that interested him. The series took about a year to report and the six stories appeared in The Washington Post throughout 2013.

“It can be really complicated to take something like that to make it personal and to make people feel it,” Saslow explains.

Saslow says he works hard to make his subjects feel comfortable so they may tell their stories truthfully. His subjects often invite him into their homes and Saslow immerses himself into their lives.

“It’s the little, interpersonal stuff that make people feel comfortable with you and feel comfortable in a space,” Saslow says, “if you can convince them and it’s genuine…that gets you a long way with people.”

Creating that kind of trust with people takes time. Like writing, it’s a reporting practice that journalists must repeat and hone, he says.

“You have to write so many stories before you really figure out how to write the right kind of story and the story you’re going to look back on and feel good about,” Saslow says.

The most rewarding part about his job, Saslow says, is that every day is different.

“There aren’t that many jobs where one day you’re in a rural town…and then the next day you’re trying to talk to a politician,” Saslow says.

After his talk, Saslow met individually with more than two dozen students who wanted to speak with him personally. Saslow and his wife, Rachel, a Newhouse alumna who freelances for The Washington Post, now live in Portland, Oregon with their two daughters.

Earica Parrish is a sophomore at the Newhouse School.

Photos by Gao Hong, a graduate student at the Newhouse School.