Bliss Summerstone Reporter
Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist of the New York Times John Branch Visits Incline Village
“I’m going to tell you exactly what it was like as much as I can,” said award-winning journalist John Branch in describing his investigative reporting and writing.
About the Pop-Up Salons:
The Nevada Humanities organization kicked off their series of Pop-Up Salons with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Branch, the seasoned sports reporter for the New York Times for their start of the series. Branch was available for conversation to a group of around 50 on Friday, March 23, at the Incline Public Library as part of the Pop-Up Salon. Media Coach and former PBS News Anchor Brent Boynton introduced Branch by leading a talk for the first hour. Boynton asked Branch about what his life was like before becoming a journalist and what his plans were for the future, and then opened a discussion with questions from the audience. Afterward, attendants had the opportunity to speak with Branch personally during a social gathering.
Christina Barr, executive director of Nevada Humanities, said: “This is a program of Nevada Humanities, that part of the inaugural Pop-Up Salons that will be happening statewide. This particular one is special. It’s an inaugural program of our year-long focus on Pulitzer Prize winners. This is one of the reasons we chose John Branch tonight, because he is just this creative dynamic journalist who also won a Pulitzer Prize for this amazing article “Snow Fall.” I felt like tonight was a wonderful success and I love our crowd and that everyone was engaged and had questions. That’s the purpose of a salon; to really bring topics of interest to people who want to gather, and talk, and explore ideas. A great start.”
Instead of the academic style of the original ‘Salon’ series that began at Sundance bookstore in Reno, Nevada Humanities added the opportunity for conversation to the ‘Salon’ events. “People do actually want to have deep meaningful conversation. This generates community that is hard to find,” Christina Barr said.
This casual atmosphere allowed the group of attendees to socialize with each other. Branch, wearing a pinstriped shirt and blue jeans, spoke enthusiastically to a group of journalism majors from Sierra Nevada College about the creation of “Snow Fall” and the way it changed news. “Snow Fall” was Branch’s Pulitzer-winning article that chronicled a destructive avalanche at Stevens Pass that involved 16 professional skiers. The article was one of the first to be told through mulit-media journalism and has set an industry standard.
That story, “Snow Fall,” was one of the first stories told through multimedia journalism: at 17,000 words, with photos, video, interviews, graphics, and twenty people woven into the feature, it was a ground-breaking work of journalism. This legendary article has set a standard in modern journalism today and is taught in schools across the country and the world, but Branch said there were many “unseen people” at the New York Times that helped to make the piece come together.
According to Branch, “After the story ran, they had departments around the New York Times, like Business, calling the Graphics department going, ‘Hey, we have a cool story too. Can you ‘Snow Fall’ it for us?’”
“Five years ago we would have a story idea,” Branch elaborated. “We would say, ‘Let’s assign a reporter. He or she will write it, and then we will see if there is some multimedia to do also. Now we say, ‘Great idea. Should we write it? Or should we do it through photos, graphics, or is there some other way to do it; through video?’ Maybe we don’t even write the story.”
Branch said, “Here’s the thing: I can only take responsibility for the text and the story,” explaining he gave information to editors and graphic designers, but he had “no clue” how they got it done. “Ï get too much credit for the presentation of ‘Snow Fall.’”
Karen Wikander, Digital Projects and Programs Manager for Nevada Humanities, said, “[John Branch] is very humble too and clearly loves what he does. He is amazing, and a phenomenal story teller. People might not recognize that. When you hear ‘journalist’, you know that they [sic] write news pieces and things like that, but his ability to chase out a human interest story is a credit to what he does.”
And that’s exactly what he loves about journalism: exposing the room that is behind the curtain of the hidden camera in sports and taking his audience with him to the inner circle of his story. John Branch sees this as an obligation he enjoys. He brings people into a world they would otherwise never have gotten a chance to view without him.
Sierra Nevada student Jamie Wanzek said, “I love reading peoples’ writing, and then meeting them and hearing their story and what brought them to where they are….. John Branch writes about the grit of sports, and the stories have a lot of substance; like the ones you don’t want to hear about because it’ s tough to hear.”
Boy On Ice
Branch also authored the non-fiction book “Boy on Ice,” about twenty-eight-year-old Derek Boogaard who died with serious brain deterioration from his life in sports. This was an additional topic for discussion at the salon.
“I started reading his book, ‘Boy on Ice’, about the hockey player. That is a very powerful book about the violence in hockey. It really makes you think about the violence in all sports,” said Pam Rasmussen, the Incline Village Public Library manager. “I love football, and now I have to rethink how much I watch football if it’s going to haunt these players.” While describing the violence and bodily harm the hockey players face for our entertainment in this spectators’ sport, she said, “Their hands turn into clubs because they fight, and they break open their knuckles day after day. This doesn’t heal, and when it does heal, it’s just scar tissue.” Rasmussen found the book enlightening and enjoyed being able to get an objective inside look at a topic she knew little about. “What I appreciated about Branch is his honesty in approaching whatever topic he writes about, and looking at it in every different angle. When I read his work, there is never a hint of judgment,” she said.
In an age when printed news seems less and less vital, Branch said, “There would always be a need for newspapers,” even in this internet focused world.
Newspapers aren’t regulated by the FCC the way that TV and radio are because they don’t have to get their licenses renewed by the government every year. This creates a greater opportunity for the truth of news to be found in paper rather than a televised news broadcast per se. “We have to have newspapers; we have to have people who are giving us the first version of history as newspapers are,” Branch said to Brent Boynton during his interview. He added about the future of news: “I’m a big proponent of the First Amendment and Fourth Estate.”
Branch was proud of the fact that he helped to facilitate the tearing down of “metal walls” between the departments of the New York Times.
“I’m working on a big story now that is basically going to be a bunch of multimedia things strung together without words. I’m the connective tissue, as opposed to “Snow Fall”, which was a giant massive text that we have broken up with multimedia. It taught us that it doesn’t always have to be text … which is kind of exciting.”