Eli Saslow '04 wins George Polk Award for Washington Post series about food stamps

By Emily Kullkus

March 19, 2014

ASNE also recently recognizes his narrative writing

Eli Saslow is a 2004 graduate of the Newhouse School.

Eli Saslow knows he can’t buy groceries for the families he writes about. That’s not his job. His job is to write stories that shine a light on inequality or injustice or the hardships of life. Saslow, a 2004 graduate of the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and a reporter for The Washington Post, hopes people read his stories and are motivated to do something—to understand, to help, to make change.

Saslow also recognizes that any attention to the stories he writes—this time in the form of one of journalism’s most important awards, the George Polk Award for National Reporting—brings more readers and hopefully, more change.

And that might buy groceries.

The national reporting award is for a six-part series Saslow wrote about American families who rely on the federal food stamp program. He is among 30 winners from 15 news organizations recognized for work in 2013. He will be honored at an awards ceremony on April 11.

Saslow reported the series for about a year and the stories were published throughout 2013. He says he worried that food stamps and food insecurity were too “bureaucratic” to be interesting to readers.

But Saslow, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2013 and then did a wrenching story last year about a grieving Newtown family, isn’t known for bureaucratic writing.

“I hope a lesson for me going forward was that I can take on these big policy issues and make them real on a human scale,” he says. “I think the food stamp stuff was a good way to sort of pilot that.”

Saslow’s narrative stories take you deep inside families whose refrigerators are never quite full enough, to a controversial Florida congressman struggling to overhaul the system, to a family in southern Texas struggling with diabetes and cholesterol because they can’t afford vegetables.

The stories are intimate and informative. In one, an exhausted and hungry mother throws everyone out of her house, frustrated that there’s never enough food to go around. Another—the one about the congressman—includes compelling food stamp statistics dating back to the 1950s. The narratives are clearly what Saslow is known for: engaging details that humanize critical issues.

The American Society of News Editors also recently recognized Saslow’s food stamp stories as well as his Newtown story with the Deborah Howell Award for Nondeadline Writing.

“Eli Saslow’s stories demonstrated how powerful great narrative writing can be,” judges wrote in the March 13 award announcement. “Judges found the reporting and writing in this collection moving and revealing about the state of our culture.”

Saslow says one of the most surprising things he learned while reporting the series was what an economic impact food stamps can have in the communities where people buy their groceries.

“The first of the month there’s this huge economic injection into every place in the country,” he says. “A shadow economy has grown from that. Stores that might do $1,000 worth of business on the 30th might do $15,000 on the first or the second. And they are hiring part-time help just for those days.”

The Polk Awards are sponsored by Long Island University to honor special achievements in journalism. Of Saslow’s work on food stamps, the award announcement says: “Saslow has painted an indelible portrait of American poverty.”

Saslow says he feels fortunate to be able to write such stories at a time when journalism—newspaper journalism in particular—is in flux. He joked that he hoped the future was “long-form, narrative journalism,” which tends to be a luxury in any newsroom these days. But says he hopes the future is in “creating unique and lasting content.”

“I worry that we’re creating a generation of generalists,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for doing a lot of things… but being mediocre at everything doesn’t really work. You have to find what you really love.”

Saslow, who worked extensively at The Daily Orange while a student and started out in sports reporting, has found his passion and hopes others do, too. He encourages Newhouse students to practice, practice, practice.

“Getting good at journalism is just doing it,” he says. “It’s great to talk about and it’s great to have schools like Newhouse but it’s not enough. You just have to go out and do it and do it a lot and find the parts you like and can get better at. Just keep doing it.”

Saslow and his wife Rachel, a freelance writer and a Newhouse and Daily Orange alumna, live in Maryland outside Washington, D.C., with their two young daughters, Sienna and Chloe.

Emily Kulkus '02 is the web content manager at the Newhouse School. Email her at eakulkus@syr.edu.