It’s All Journalism: Writing That Puts the Reader In the Story

It’s All Journalism is a weekly conversation about the changing state of the media and the future of journalism.

“The best way to tell the story is to really try to give the reader a sense that they know the person they’re reading about.”

Steve Friess, a freelance journalist and former staff writer for Politico and Knight Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, found himself on the receiving end of the story opportunity of a lifetime in the form of a cardboard box filled with hundreds of letters.

Capt. David Wilsey served as an anesthesiologist during World War II and wrote letters to his wife, Emily, back at home. The letters were discovered by Friess’ friend, the doctor’s son, in 2009 after both David and Emily Wilsey had died.

The letters revealed a man who wrote beautiful, passionate, literate letters filled with details of the war he’d never discussed with his family.

Wilsey was among the soldiers who arrived at the Dachau concentration camp in May 1945 during the camp’s liberation, and in several letters, he stressed the importance of the public learning the truth about what was going on in Hitler’s Germany and captured territories. Other than those letters, he never discussed what he’d witnessed with his family.

Friess said the task of selecting which letters to read, which to copy, which to pull from and use as source material for his piece, was staggering.

“You can dip in and out of these letters,” he says. “You can read one of them as a historical document. You can go directly to May 8, 1945 and read his account of going into Dachau, and they’re really interesting as historical documents,” Friess said. “But if you read dozens of these letters in chronology over the course of several months or years, that’s how you really get to know him and that’s how you’re able to detect a shift in the way he is. You see it very clearly the minute he starts writing from Dachau, he’s just 10 times angrier, as you might expect.”

This isn’t Friess’ first go-round with multifaceted and complex narrative. Previously, he spent several years researching the overlapping or fully disconnected network of registration requirements for sexual offenders, resulting in a piece published by earlier this year. His journey there began when a victim of sexual assault suggested Friess examine boxer Mike Tyson’s registration on the sex offender list in Nevada.

“In 2009, Mike Tyson was considered to be noncompliant by the state of Nevada’s registry, but the city of Henderson has one too and he was perfectly properly registered there,” Friess said. “He also was nowhere to be found in the registry of Indiana where he was convicted; he was in the registry in Florida where he had lived but that registration said he lived in Arizona. Arizona had no reference for him at all, and so on. It was this big mess. This was one example of somebody who you and I could find out where he was tomorrow just by looking him up on Twitter,” whereas other victims might not be able to get any kind of information on their attacker.”