Stuever talks to students in Iowa Journalist class.
What do white plastic patio chairs, haunted waterbed stores and discount funeral homes have in common? The answer is: Hank Stuever, Style section writer for The Washington Post.
“I tend to look for odd stories that never would have gotten told otherwise,” Stuever said. These stories and more can be found in the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s book, Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere.
Stuever, currently on a one-year leave from the Post to write a book about Christmas in the suburbs, visited The University of Iowa in September as a professional in residence to talk about his journalism experiences.
While pursuing a B.A. at Loyola University in New Orleans, Stuever changed his major several times. Originally, he wanted to pursue a career in graphic design, but his accumulation of journalism classes, combined with his time spent on the school newspaper, The Maroon, caused him to switch to journalism.
After obtaining enough clips from The Maroon, Stuever applied for an internship at the Los Angeles Times and was chosen from hundreds of applicants. Although he said the 1,200 editorial employees “didn’t know [he] was there,” Stuever believed it was a valuable stepping-stone for his career.
In 1990, Stuever became a metro reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. He continued writing feature stories in his spare time, having no guarantee that they were even going to be published. Ultimately, he was moved to the features desk upon an opening.
“I was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing when I was way too young,” Stuever said. “I was only 24.”
The 1993 Pulitzer Prize nomination was for a Tribune story that journeyed through a couple’s wedding. Three years later, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist once again for a story that was about the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Originally from Oklahoma City, critics say this story is the closest thing to a personal essay in Stuever’s book.
After the Tribune, Stuever took a job for the Austin-American Statesman before moving to Washington, D.C., to write for the Post. For the Style section, he has written about events such as the Michael Jackson trial, two Miss America pageants and three Academy Awards shows, not to mention a variety of offbeat topics.
Stuever explained that a story may not seem exciting at first, but after researching, it can prove otherwise. For example, his research about white plastic chairs made him realize how “ubiquitous” they are. Everyone from the working class in Vietnam to the Taliban has them, he explained.
“I ended up creating a poetic riff on the background and time spent in a white plastic patio chair,” Stuever said.
Covering white plastic patio chairs is hardly the same as covering the Academy Awards, so how does one become such an expert on such a vast array of topics?
“I don’t want to be an expert on anything,” Stuever said. “I like to start fresh.”
He advised students that the key to being a good reporter is to be an “expert learner,” regardless of the subject matter.
“Always be hungry for information and things you don’t know,” he said.