Story and photos by Aaron Claycomb
Crouched over his cluttered desk, Mark Johnson scrambles through a disheveled stack of papers to find his phone and notepad. The papers are a mix of some stories he’s printed out to read and old newspaper clippings of some of his work. In front of his computer, quotes printed on paper are taped up in his cubical to provide inspiration.
One quote pinned under his computer is from Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign war correspondent Barry Bearak of The New York Times: “A soldier named Amin was the first to die, taking a bullet in the right side of his chest. He collapsed backward as red began to glide down the green of his fatigues. Two of his comrades lifted the startled man to his knees.”
Johnson surrounds himself with great quotes.
“I keep really good writing all around me in case I get in a really tough place and can’t write,” Johnson says.
He eventually locates his pad and begins jotting down notes.
Earlier that morning, the Pulitzer Prize-winning health and science writer ran across a news clip buried in the back pages of his newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and knew that his daily routine wasn’t going to go as planned. A new bacteria, Elizabethkingia anophelis, sweeping across the state of Wisconsin was linked to 18 deaths.
“We have a potentially big story,” Johnson says.
Johnson is on the hunt for a doctor who will go on the record about the bacteria. He calls a local hospital that possibly has one of the infected patients. With the phone pressed against his shoulder, Johnson tries to persuade the hospital to talk. “Either the hospitals are the ones saying ‘We don’t want our doctors talking,’ or it’s the state ordering you to, and either way we need to be able to tell readers who it is.”
Johnson continued to press, but he couldn’t get the hospital to budge.
Johnson, along with his Journal Sentinel coworkers; Kathleen Gallagher, Gary Porter, Lou Saldivor and Alison Sherwood won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting. They made history, chronicling a medical team that discovered a cure for an infant’s mysterious illness by searching his DNA. The story was published in three parts: “One in a billion: A boy’s life, a medical mystery.”
On the Monday the Pulitzer was being announced, Johnson arrived at the paper around 7:45 a.m.
“There was a lot of buzz around the newsroom and Kathleen and I decided we had to get out of there,” Johnson says. “We went to lunch and returned to the paper about 30 minutes before the announcement. I remember wondering if things would be different the next time we passed through that door.”
Huddled in the newsroom with his colleagues, Johnson and his wife, Mary-Liz, were full of anticipation. “Someone clapped and I just started hugging people,” Johnson recalls. “I remember most Mary-Liz saying over and over ‘All these years, all these years.’ More than anyone she knew what this meant to me.”
Before Johnson even became a Pulitzer finalist he was writing to winners each year. He wanted to learn from great writers. “At first I tried to imitate these stories,” Johnson says, thinking back to his younger days as a general assignment reporter. “Gradually though, I began to figure out what made them great and how they were different from stories I was writing. More important, I began to realize I was on the kind of journey that has no end point.”
Johnson’s grandfather, Edgar Johnson, wrote a biography of Charles Dickens and passed along his love for writing and sharing stories.
At age 12, Johnson started his first job delivering newspapers for The Boston Globe. His grades suffered because he was devoting too much time to working and reading the Globe. He fell into writing at his high school newspaper, The Sagamore, at Brookline High School, as the entertainment editor. His managing editor was Conan O’Brien, who would go on to become the late night television host.
At 16, Johnson received his first major byline, when the Boston Herald ran one of his stories. As a C-average student in his high school science classes, Johnson never imagined he’d end up a science writer for a newspaper.
When Johnson was getting ready to attend college he already knew that he wanted to focus on literature and writing. He attended the University of Toronto in Canada, a more affordable route. The school didn’t have a journalism program, but as a sophomore Johnson learned what he could at his college newspapers. He worked at The Strand, which published once every two weeks, and he eventually worked his way up to the larger university newspaper, The Varsity, and became the city editor.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life,” Johnson says.
After finishing school, fresh with ambition and vigor, Johnson mailed applications to all the top newspapers and magazines he could think of: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune and others. “I still have the rejection slips stacked at home,” he says.
Forced to tamp down his ambitions, Johnson secured a job as one of three reporters at the Provincetown Advocate, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 8,000 in Cape Cod, Mass., covering town hall and the fishing industry.
But Johnson soon learned his work at the college newspaper didn’t prepare him for professional journalism. He didn’t know how to ask the right questions. He didn’t know how to be a reporter.
So he read everything he could get his hands on. On the weekends he would ride his motorcycle to the Boston University bookstore to buy journalism books to study. When he wasn’t reading — one of his personal favorites Stalking the Feature Story by William Ruehlmann — he was writing to other hotshot reporters to get samples of their best works.
Johnson continued to work at a string of newspapers. From 1987 to 1990, he covered southern New Hampshire and business for a small daily, the Haverhill Gazette in Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, Johnson covered family issues for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois.
Before joining the Journal Sentinel in 2000, Johnson was covering small towns for the Providence Journal Bulletin in Rhode Island. Johnson would secretly pursue longer stories on his own time. It was the first time Johnson began branching out from his regular daily assignments and writing the types of stories that might win him awards.
At the Journal Sentinel, he was a part of reporting teams that were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting, in 2003 and 2006. He was also a finalist for a Pulitzer in feature writing in 2014. “You’re not supposed to want a Pulitzer, but the truth was that I’d been close before, and yes, I coveted the prize,” he says.
His hands clasped. Johnson listens to his editor, George Stanley, in an editorial meeting, as they discuss their upcoming stories and photos for the Journal Sentinel.
Johnson nervously shakes his right foot up and down, legs crossed. Amid the laughing at the routine meeting, talk of Johnson’s trip to Jordan and Germany suddenly weighs down the room with anticipation.
The international reporting trip to Jordan is a first for Johnson.
He’s preparing to document the aid and suffering of Syrian refugees and war victims. Johnson is traveling with a Journal Sentinel photographer and a Syrian doctor currently living in Wisconsin. The newspaper received a nearly $9,000 grant for the stories from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Johnson started at the Journal Sentinel in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2008 he became a science and health reporter for the paper.
One of Johnson’s first science stories, at Providence Journal, was about a rare blue whale that had washed ashore in Rhode Island. “I had this curiosity,” he says. Different scientists from around the country were studying this blue whale, and it just so happened one woman at Tufts University had the eardrum to part of the whale. Johnson called the woman and asked if he could come to witness it for himself.
This was only the beginning of Johnson’s science and health coverage.
On the phone, the woman told Johnson she didn’t have time to teach him “biology 101.” So he studied up and purchased a biology dictionary.
Johnson didn’t plan to stay at the Journal Sentinel for 16 years. But when he first interviewed at the newspaper he could sense the hunger in the room for superb storytelling, and he wanted more than a bite.
“It feels like it’s passed really quickly,” Johnson says. “All the other places I’ve been at they would always talk about when there was a golden period,” he continues. “[The Journal Sentinel] were really hungry. They would have me look over some stuff that was like their best work, and say what I thought,” he said. During an interview with the newspaper, “I’d say ‘Oh, it looks really, really good.’ And they said: ‘You think so? Because I don’t think we’re there yet and we’re trying to get there but we’re not there… They were hungry, and that’s what I wanted, because I’d never been on that side of the curb.”
To remind Johnson how his stories serve readers, he scatters artifacts around his desk that sits in a small cubicle barely large enough for two chairs.
A black-and-white photo of one of the missing persons whose family Johnson interviewed during 9/11 is pinned up behind his phone. Next to that is a photo of the space shuttle Columbia crew of the STS-107 that disintegrated upon reentering orbit, killing all seven astronauts. Those were two of the biggest stories Johnson’s covered in his 30-year journalism career.
Two bins behind his computer house his anthology of science books that he turns to regularly for stories, such as the Science Dictionary, the Atlas of Human Anatomy and An A to Z on DNA. Some books are gifts from coworkers and others Johnson has picked up over the years.
His worn brown leather briefcase is full of stories he takes home and reads at night. “I always need a good story to go home,” Johnson says.
One of Johnson’s partners on the Pulitzer winning story “One in a Billion,” Kathleen Gallagher, worked alongside him the whole project. “God. He works like kind of nonstop,” Gallagher says, laughing. “It’s like that feeling making you feel: God he’s working really hard. I gotta work a whole lot harder,” she says. “He’s always working harder than you.”
“It’s kind of weird how well he is able to work with other reporters because editors maybe find you a little more…” Gallagher pauses.
“Abrasive.” Johnson answers, laughing.
In April, Gallagher and Johnson published their book, One in a Billion: The Story of Nic Volker and the Dawn of Genomic Medicine, based on their winning story.
Now Johnson is covering one of the world’s poorest and hopeless places, and he knows the impact his story will have.
“I am wondering how I’ll put it all together,” Johnson says. “I’m worrying to be perfectly honest. I’m not a foreign correspondent, just a health/science reporter. This is well outside my wheelhouse. But it’s good to face this kind of challenge from time to time.”
Johnson has since returned to reporting for the Journal Sentinel and is digging up his next Pulitzer, and reading great stories from the winners.