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Elephant in the room

Want to know what it takes to edit a Pulitzer Prize-winning story? Ask Mike Wilson


Story and photograph by Emily Toman

WHEN MIKE WILSON arrived as the new editor of The Dallas Morning News, he brought with him a miniature alabaster elephant that he says symbolizes his editing philosophy. “It comes from a saying, ‘How do you carve an elephant out of a bar soap? You carve it until it looks like an elephant.’ ”
Reporter Lane DeGregory gave him the memento when he left his post at the Tampa Bay Times, where he served as lead editor on DeGregory’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning story, “Girl in the Window.” She followed Danielle, a 6-year-old child found living in filth, unable to walk or speak, and her journey to healing with her new adoptive family at age 9.
Wilson says the editing process began months before any words were strung together.
“In journalism, we talk so much about the importance of those early conversations,” Wilson says. “I’m the writer’s curious friend. I ask questions outside the lines.”
DeGregory arrived at the idea for “Girl in the Window” when she saw a traveling exhibit that featured portraits of local foster children to help increase awareness of adoption. She wanted to focus on one child’s success story and found Danielle, who had recently been adopted. During her initial reporting, DeGregory spoke with a child psychologist at the University of South Florida and discovered the severity of Danielle’s neglect.
“There hadn’t been a case like this since the ’70s,” DeGregory says. “That’s when Mike and I decided to follow it a little bit longer.”
The police had rescued Danielle three years earlier from a closet inside a roach-infested, feces-covered house where her mother had deprived her of all human interaction. It was the worst child abuse case police had ever seen.
After a six-week stay in the hospital, Danielle was placed in foster care, and her photo ended up in the Heart Gallery catching the eyes of Bernie and Diane Lierow. They fell in love with her and embarked on the seemingly impossible task of rehabilitating the child.
“In my mind, the story was going to be an arc from when the police found her to when she was adopted,” DeGregory says.
About once a month, she and the photographer, Melissa Lyttle, traveled three hours to visit the adoptive parents. They hesitated to let a reporter and photographer in at first, worried that Danielle would be portrayed as an animal, but soon DeGregory and Lyttle were fully immersed in her day-to-day life. What was pitched as a simple, heartwarming adoption feature became a story of devastation and hope.
To win a Pulitzer, you have to have a great writer and a great story. “Girl in the Window” had both. “When I read the first 500 words, I had to push myself back from the table because I thought it was the best first draft I had ever read,” Wilson says.
But even this story needed a good editor. DeGregory talked to Wilson every step of the way, often squeezing in conversations in the newsroom parking lot. “We’d always talk before I would start reporting,” DeGregory says. “I would talk to him about what I found, what I was worried about. He was like my therapist.”    
Soon it became clear that an important piece of the story was missing. Wilson insisted on finding Danielle’s birth mother, the “Boo Radley,” he says, referencing the To Kill a Mockingbird character who is ever-present but hidden from view.     
DeGregory, who is a mother of two boys around Danielle’s age, had no interest in giving a voice to the woman responsible for such horrific abuse.
“We pushed back and forth on that for a while,” she says. “I never would have done that without him pushing me. It changed the story significantly.”
While Wilson is careful not to change a writer’s voice, as the editor his biggest job is to provide a framework for the story, ensuring there are no loose ends. To see how far Danielle had come, readers had to see where she started. This crucial point in the process turned a good story into a great story. It goes back to a question Wilson asks his reporters from the very beginning: “Is this story going to require a certain level of sacrifice from the writer? If it doesn’t, it’s unlikely it will yield a great result,” he says.
Often, the most challenging part is what makes it worthwhile. Finding the guts to knock on the birth mother’s trailer door gave DeGregory access to an enormous amount of information and paperwork she otherwise would not have found. A black trash bag contained Danielle’s birth certificate, court reports and medical records that privacy laws would have restricted.
DeGregory left that day hating the woman less, but still unsympathetic. Her devotion to her story’s central character is part of what made “Girl in the Window” so impactful, Wilson says.
“Her heart was in the story, but not in a way that clouded her judgment or affected her impartiality,” he says. “She feels what the reader feels.”
Wilson and DeGregory worked together at the Tampa Bay Times for 13 years. That was Wilson’s first editing job, and DeGregory was his first hire. She says it’s tough not having him around anymore. She often thinks of his advice when finishing her stories. Wilson almost always cut the last three lines to reveal the true ending.
“He helped me find my elephant.”
 

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Want to know what it takes to edit a Pulitzer Prize-winning story? Ask Mike Wilson
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