You can also see the RealVideo from this interview.

Jim Willse: My name is Jim Willse, and I have been editor of the Star Ledger for the last six years. I came recently from the New York Daily News. I was Editor and Publisher of the Daily News until its sale in the early 90’s and I left the paper and spent two years with the Newhouse Organization, the parent company of the Star Ledger doing what seems to be now doing very primitive work on the Internet, including a variety of digital projects.

The Digital Journalist: We know the background of New Jersey Newsphotos. At what point did it become important to you that you have your own photo department?

JW: I got to the paper six years ago and walked in door and found the eccentricity that the paper did not have its own photographers. I can’t think of another big paper that essentially outsourced its photography and it seemed in the first hour that that was not the best idea in the world, but it took a few years till we got to the point of addressing the logistics, and frankly, the politics of bringing the photographers into the building. When we had done a lot of the other things that needed doing including bringing a lot of people in, redesigning the newsroom itself, then Pim and his crew and I were ready to consider what it would take to have the photo staff become part of the paper instead of physically in another building, and spiritually somewhere else. So it was about 4 years before we were ready to confront it, and almost another full year to bring it about.

TDJ: Let’s talk a little more about that spiritual thing. What is your aesthetic about news and what a newspaper should be, and what kind of people do you look for?

JW: Well, esthetic is a fancy word I guess for what we are trying to do. I grew up on the Daily News. My father was in a cop in New York, and it was the paper we had in the house. I remember vividly sitting at the kitchen table on 181st street, and my father would pick up the Daily News, look at the front, and it would say then, as it does now, “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” He would give it kind of a shake, and he would say, “let’s see who got caught in whose bedroom.” And he would look through the front of the paper, then look at the centerfold, which the paper no longer has, but then that was a mini photo-essay everyday.

The other big publication in our house was Life Magazine. This was the 50’s and early 60’s and that was the photo tradition that I was exposed to, and all the wonderful things about the Daily News and Life Magazine of that time, so when I got to a place where I could actually influence what a publication could do with photography, that was what was rooted in my head. The place I got to do anything about it was at the San Francisco Examiner in the late 70s and early 80s and at that time when the paper went through its own reformation, it became a very well photographed newspaper with the same basic understandings I think we are operating under now.. Photographers are journalists, they are expected to act that way and be respected that way. That a paper can’t just give lip service to photography, you have to give them the resources, spend money, send them places where they can get good pictures, and when they come back with good pictures you have to give them room to breathe. You have to do it like you mean it. Just like you do words like you mean it? And you have to do it day after day. You can’t just do one project, and then have three months go by and then do another project. The paper has to feel like it’s a well-edited, well-written, well-photographed paper day after day front to back, sports, features, and news side. If you do all the things that make it possible, and you keep talking about it, analyzing why it works and why it doesn’t, after a while that becomes what the paper is, not just what it’s trying to do. I don’t know if that is an esthetic or not. I guess it is our philosophy that we are trying to become a complete publication, where the words and the pictures, from the outset, from the start of an idea to the time of publication are a synchronous whole.

TDJ: So you brought the photographers in here, and within a year you won a Pulitzer Prize. Tell me about that. Tell me what the project was, how it worked, and what the reaction of the paper was?

JW: The story of how that story came to be is sort of a minor parable about the role of photography at the paper. The idea of tracking the two young men who went through the horror of the fire, and what happened to them subsequently was the idea of Pim Van Hemmen, the Photo Director. He had had a similar idea years before and had contacts with the burn unit at St. Barnabas, and had become interested in the work they do. At that time, the paper was not interested in that idea and it went fallow, but when the Seton Hall fire took place, he remembered the idea and reintroduced it. From that point on we went forward, because he had earlier contact with the hospital, they were receptive to the idea. The key, the first key on a project like this is access, and because he had contacts, and he understood the basic ingredients we were able to get the access, first from the hospital, then from the families. From that point on, it became just a matter of incredible energy and commitment by two journalists, a writer and a photographer who stayed with these kids under the most difficult, traumatic circumstances you can imagine for the next eight months, and they became part of the families, and part of the burn unit.

We had some early decisions to make, when it became apparent that this was going to be something special. The first was, would this be black and white or would it be color, and I don’t think there was any serious debate about it, but we had a debate anyway, because you are supposed to have debates, but it was so obvious that it was a black and white project. It wasn’t because the colors of the burns would be too intense to run in color, but it was a classic black and white Life Magazine photo essay and we got past that immediately. Then very early on, we knew this thing was big…big in terms of space, and if we were going to do it right, we would have to run it big, even though we didn’t know where it was going. We didn’t know what was going to happen to the kids. We didn’t know how long it would take, but we knew there would become a time when we would want to be in the paper and when that time came, we would have to be prepared to use an awful lot of pages, and that decision was made within weeks of the start of the project. As it went on, it was all about Matt Rainey and Robin Fisher giving themselves over to these kids and their story and living with them. Giving up their weekends, giving up their evenings, being there first thing in the morning, suffering with them, and being close to their families.

Then, a very interesting dynamic took place about the relationship of the words and the pictures. A picture is taken of the moment. The picture is taken, and life goes on, and that can’t happen again. The picture is then. But for the writer, words are put into a notebook and time goes on and the image of the words isn’t realized in the same way a picture is. The picture is then, the words are somewhere down the road. We found ourselves having a great number of intensely great images with no place to go, because we weren’t going to publish for months down to road with a story that hadn’t been written yet. So we had to find a way that there was not a dislocation between the immediacy of the pictures, and the subsequent writing of the stories. When the time came to write, Robin needed to be inside the pictures. We needed to get the words right up against the pictures and relive the moment the picture was taken, and she set up shop in almost a closet, it was almost literally a broom closet. We put in a computer and a keyboard, and this is the key, I think, we then took work prints from Matt’s file that had been edited as time went on and we papered the wall. She sat at her keyboard, with meticulous notes, so she was inside the imagery of the story. There was no place she could look, where she couldn’t see the pictures, and they were done in a chronological order. They weren’t just put up randomly.

So I think she found that extremely helpful to in a way to relive the moments of the pictures, and have them breathe something into the words. When it came time to edit the pictures finally, for publication, the closeness of the words and pictures were much greater than you would expect where there was that intermission between the moment of the picture and the writing.

JW: The idea came from John McPhee who is one of my idols, who would take butcher paper, it’s all words, but there would be scenes. It’s almost like a movie storyboard, and you can take pieces of the story, whether its pictures or words and move them around so they make more sense, and that was the process by which the words and the pictures were integrated again, and I think it worked, because when the time came to design the paper, we didn’t have to go through some of the things you usually go through…”we don’t have a picture of this…or what happened to that”…they were marching together, and I think it was very successful.

TDJ: We would like to hear a little bit about the reaction of the staff to the Pulitzer, and how it affected morale at the newspaper.

JW: I think the whole paper felt buoyed long before the Pulitzer came out. That this newspaper could make that kind of commitment to a project was in a way its own reward. We loved winning the Pulitzer…we want to do it again, it’s really a lot of fun…it gives you a great reason to go out a drink beer, and we would have been very disappointed if we had not won. But even if we had not won, the feeling that we could do a project like that, and would do it, and would do it again, really raised a lot of boats. It put the bar higher, and we will do it again. The idea that we can commit the time and the energy and the space to a story that it truly special, and do it right, makes us a better paper day to day. It had an immediate payback.

JW: There is a tremendous lesson to be learned for the newspaper when we started to run this series. We had never done anything nearly as ambitious. That amount of space and energy of presentation. In the first day or two we got a lot of phone calls, and they were almost all negative. They were from readers who thought these images of these young men who had horrible burns, did not belong in their newspaper. They felt we were being intrusive. They felt the images were way too strong for young families. We began the series on a Sunday, and ran it on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, took Saturday off and concluded it on the following Sunday.

By Tuesday the phone calls were over, then there was silence. It was almost an eerie silence for the rest of the week. We skipped Saturday, because we wanted the final bookend to be on the following Sunday. We started to get a lot of phone calls on Saturday. “Where is today’s chapter?” And then in the final installment on Sunday, we wrote that installment on deadline, because the two boys went back to campus, and we did that one on the run, and we ran a brief editorial that took note of the earlier part of the week, that some readers thought this was too tough for a family newspaper, but we did it because we thought that was the story and you needed to see the whole thing.

By the end of Sunday we had more than 1,000 phone calls, and they went along the same line…”I feel so much for these kids, the doctors and nurses that helped them and their families. You made the right call. The pictures were painful to look at, but necessary for the story to be told.” And time and time again, the readers in a time-starved society, when newspapers are wringing their hands trying to find ways to shorten stories, no more jumps, a tighter news hole. The readers said, “I changed my life to make time for that story. I got up early, I took it to work, I read it at lunch...I called my sister, I gave it to my kids…They were changing their lives because the story had grabbed them, and the lesson for us, and any other newspaper that will hear it is, by all means do everything you can to be streamlined, and efficient and that sort of thing, but remember, a good story is still a good story, and people will find someway to connect with it, and they sure connected with that. That has become a very valuable lesson to us going down the road…. don’t try to make projects that are cheap calories, you know let’s put big pictures and a lot of words because that is what you are supposed to do but when you’ve got something that has all the basics of human drama, and a story that has narrative and powerful imagery, visual and textual, you are going to get there. People will remember it, and they will come to your paper with that expectation. It doesn’t have to be 40,000 words and seven parts It can be one really good feature story…25 inches and 3 pictures….but if it is there day after day after day that becomes who you are. You are a value to the readers and that is not a bad goal to have, and that is the simplest way we have to say about what we are trying to be.

JW: You make the point day in and day out that pictures travel with words and words travel with pictures and you do it in little ways. This is a list of the projects coming in September and October, and each one says “Author” and “Photographer”. It doesn’t just say “ Author”. It’s a little reminder that these things are happening. Everyday we have a photo show during our afternoon story conference. When we redesigned all this stuff, we thought it was important that we have a way to look at pictures rather than just passing Xeroxes around the table, So we pull down a screen every day and have a slide show so you could see them fully realized. You look for little ways to remind people…and the photo desk has a big responsibility here…. they can’t just say, “ we have great art, just trust me” …we’ve got to see it. We try to build a day around seeing the pictures, and making sure before we leave that room that we have made some decision about how to use them. We don’t leave it till 10:30 at night for somebody to decide with 15 minutes to go.

Jim Willse can be reached by email at:

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