Collaboration is all the rage in journalism. In many conversations that means inter-outlet collaboration, such as between a newspaper and non-profit online investigative outlet. For Amy Ellis Nutt and Andre Malok, their intra-newsroom collaboration shows every sign of success. The New Jersey Star-Ledger pair — Amy a features writer and Andre a videographer/graphic artist — have teamed up for reporting projects that have grabbed major attention. Amy recently won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the pair’s series The Wreck of the Lady Mary, about the mysterious sinking of a scallop boat. However, she’s quick to point out that without the accompanying graphics (print and online) and video from Andre, the award wouldn’t have been possible. The pair’s previous work, The Accidental Artist, garnered a Pulitzer finalist nod and a Sigma Delta Chi Award from SPJ. Their backgrounds are as varied as their journalism résumés are impressive. Andre studied communication design at the Pratt Institute. Amy was once working on a doctorate and teaching philosophy at MIT. An interest in sports landed her a summer fact-checking gig at Sports Illustrated in 1988. That led to a reporting position with SI and a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
To Andre: When you were in college studying communication design in the 1980s, did you have any intent of working in journalism?
Maybe it wasn’t completely on my mind at that point, but it was communications design. But at that point, journalism seemed like a natural direction. I’m just an inquisitive person. Beyond that, I’m interested in the world no matter what the story is. And it’s genuine; I don’t care if it’s a guy talking about bugs, I’m really genuinely interested in that.
To Amy: You also have a master’s in philosophy. If you weren’t a journalist writing in-depth features, what would you be doing?
I loved writing poetry; if there was a way to be a professional poet and make money that way, I would have done that. But, then again, if I had been born a boy I would have wanted to be a baseball player. Maybe a baseball player who writes poetry.
To Andre: You wore one of those immersion suits (for the Lady Mary story). What was that like?
It was pretty neat. I’d love to be able to tell you we were 40 miles out. We weren’t. And we purchased the suits ourselves. It was like March or April, and we ended up wading into freezing cold water. Amy went as far as opening up the suit to allow water in to experience that bone-chilling, numbing cold. I didn’t do that; I actually had a phone in my pocket. (The suits) are pretty buoyant. You float really well.
To Amy: What was the immersion suit like for you?
That’s what you call real immersion journalism. I really wanted to know what it was like, and the two bodies recovered from the boat had immersion suits on, without being fully zipped. I wanted to see what it was like to have cold water in the suit. It is very, very difficult to maneuver. The key to Jose’s survival is that he floated away from the deck of the boat on his back, and he didn’t have his face in the water. By realizing how difficult it is to maneuver in the suit, I realized that was how the other two guys, Bobo and Tim, must have died, because their faces must have hit the water first. I’m on my back, trying to keep the water out. I realized, you’re basically getting soaked inside, and the water just stays there. That was key to my understanding.
To Andre: There’s probably this perception out there, I don’t know how prevalent, that storytelling is only done through words. But that’s certainly not true. Is visual storytelling just as important?
For me, I’ve always been a more visual person. I’ve had to do some writing and doing text with graphics, but I’ve always been a visual person. Photos and especially video are incredibly fascinating. There are some things that words don’t quite show. With this project, showing the waves and the boats and the fish, you see the light and there are senses that are piqued when you see the visual part of it, the pain on someone’s face. These are all things that I think are harder to do with words. When you see it, it’s pure and natural. You’re not making anything up.
To Amy: It’s not uncommon to hear people say they got into journalism because they want to tell stories or that at their core they’re “storytellers.” Is that you? What is a storyteller to you?
Really good question. Once you tell one story, you also want to tell every story. The fact that readers can be affected by your words, that was very powerful to realize that you don’t just write for yourself, you write for other people. Gradually, one of the things is that you write stories that not only move people but change people and changes systems and laws.
To Andre: In your opinion, if there is one piece of technology or software that every journalist should learn to use, what is it?
Off the top of my head, I think maybe just a camera that can shoot some video to help them remember what it was like out when they were doing an interview. Certainly they can take notes and write from memory. Snap some images and shoot some video just to remember an environment you were in.
To Amy: Another big piece of yours, The Accidental Artist (also a collaboration with Andre), won a Sigma Delta Chi Award from SPJ and was a Pulitzer finalist and inspired a book by you. Any thoughts or plans for a book about the Lady Mary?
There have been some publishers who have expressed interest in it. I have some other ideas for books that people have been talking about. What I loved about that book is that it required me to do a lot more research (on top of the original newspaper feature). Again, that totally, totally feeds into my philosophy background. I loved doing the research for that. Some of it was philosophy, some of it was science. As a storyteller, I love looking for the larger significance.
To Andre: Other than your work on the Lady Mary story, is there a particular project or illustration of which you’re most proud?
It’s easy to say another project I did with Amy (The Accidental Artist), maybe because I still consider myself an artist and an illustrator, so I connected with it a bit. It was visual, so an artist shooting an artist.
To Amy: If some young journalism student came to you and said, “I want to write like you and win Pulitzers,” what would you say?
Take courses in whatever you would be interested in. I absolutely don’t regret studying philosophy. If you stay curious then it leads you to the most amazing stories. My feeling is that everyone has a story. Some are more interesting than others, and some take more digging.