Jason Fagone: the face of narrative journalism

By Abby Wargo


Jason Fagone strongly believes in the power of journalism.

Despite the turmoil the industry has found itself in recent years, Fagone said he is optimistic about its future.

“What journalists do is completely essential and in an environment that is filled with misinformation and lies, much of it coming from very powerful people in the government, I think that journalists can push back against that, and what journalists do has never been more important,” he said in an interview at the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Nov. 7.

Fagone, the 2019 Sophie Kerr Writer-in-Residence, visited Washington College last week. In addition to speaking to students enrolled in journalism courses, he read from his most recent book, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” gave a craft talk titled “The Dark Art of Finding Ideas & Frustrating Your Rivals” at the Literary House, and participated in a Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience panel discussion featuring NPR journalists Anne Garrels and Neal Conan.

Fagone is a long-form journalist currently working on investigative pieces and long-term narrative projects at the San Francisco Chronicle. In the past he has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Huffington Post Highline, and the Washingtonian, among other publications. He is also the author of three nonfiction books: “Horseman of the Esophagus” in 2007, “Ingenious” in 2013, and “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” in 2017.

Fagone said at the Chronicle he does not have a particular beat, so he can work from a broader range of topics. He focuses on stories that stick with him and that he “cannot stop thinking about” once he begins the reporting process.

“If I am thinking about book projects or long-form magazine stories, what I am looking for is something surprising; a story I feel like I have not read anywhere else or an approach to a story that I have not seen anywhere else,” he said.

Writing about topics Fagone has limited knowledge of does not deter him from doing so. He said it can be an advantage; without preconceived notions, he can develop familiarity with the subject and add to it with research and interviews.

Most importantly, though, he needs to understand the material before he can present it to readers in an accessible way.

He said he searches for ideas that are akin to finding buried treasure.

He focuses on “finding a trove of people or records, documents, letters, that tell a compelling story that has not been told before. A story that will not exist, that will not be a thing in the world, unless you write it,” Fagone said.

On Nov. 3, the Chronicle published a story, “The Fisherman’s Secret: a modern day treasure hunt,” which he co-wrote with Chronicle reporter Tara Duggan about a San Francisco fisherman who discovered gold at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and his ensuing hunt to recover it.

Collaborating on stories is new for Fagone, who spent years as a freelancer and working on book projects, but he said it has been a great experience thus far.

The source, fisherman Giuseppe Pennisi, reached out to Duggan and shared video evidence of his discovery. She began speaking to him and reporting on the story, and Fagone came on to the project to help turn it into a longer narrative piece — his specialty.

“What I was able to help with was structuring the story of Giuseppe Pennisi as a narrative: working on the storytelling structure, spending a lot of time thinking about what came first so that the story felt like a journey, so that it took you someplace over the course of 15,000 words,” Fagone said.

Pacing, according to Fagone, is an important consideration in a long-form piece.

“You want to feel like you can lose yourself in the story and that it is taking you to some kind of destination and that there are ups and downs along the way,” he said.

The story is a result of four months of work for Fagone and over a year’s worth of reporting on Duggan’s part. For a long-form piece, this is longer than it usually takes to bring a story together, the average length of time being one to two months.

“With narrative journalism, the feeling you want is you want to read the first sentence, you want to feel like you are sort of being pulled in. You may not have thought that you wanted to read about this topic, but you cannot stop reading because it is telling you a story and you want to know what happens next. That is the effect we were trying to create with that piece,” Fagone said.

Most importantly, he said, people are actually reading the story.

“If you write something that is 15,000 words and it does not work, people will never get to the end of it. They will become hopelessly lost. If it works, then they will get all the way through, and hopefully they will enjoy the journey,” Fagone said.

In its essence, he said narrative journalism uses storytelling techniques to report in-depth on something by relying on deep interviews with sources.

“There is more freedom in narrative journalism to take the time to paint a picture, to talk about place, talk about geography, talk about character, and build up deep portraits of people, places, and events,” he said.

Fagone first came to the genre through reading narrative journalism in college, citing works by Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Lillian Ross as jumpstarting his interest.

He fell in love with journalism during his time as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s daily student newspaper. More than the reporting, he loved the energy of the newsroom and talking to the other reporters and editors, as well as conducting interviews and working on new stories each day.

Fagone said he made “lots of stupid mistakes” at the beginning of his career, but he said his anxiety about whether he was “good enough” prevented him from pursuing more ambitious projects early on.

Most of the challenges he faces in his reporting now are access issues: convincing sources to talk, finding important supplementary documents, and even finding worthwhile stories that might slip through the cracks of public attention can all be obstacles.

Another recurring challenge is inherent to journalism: writing the truth, whether people like it or not.

“I think that journalism is valuable when it creates a record, even if the story is not acted on. Even if it does not change anything, just creating a record is important,” Fagone said.

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