Tom French · 2015
Since the first Indiana State Fair opened at Military Park in Indianapolis in 1852, the annual showcase of the state’s agriculture has enticed thousands of Hoosiers to view its abundance, from produce to livestock. During the summer of 1979, a student journalist from Indiana University, Tom French, an Indianapolis native who had attended the fair for years, became intrigued by one of its more outlandish attractions – the World’s Largest Hog competition. He set out to write about it for IU’s Indiana Daily Student newspaper.
French had always considered the largest hog event “weird,” wondering why someone would take the trouble to raise an animal so enormous that its legs literally could not support its weight. His editors at the IDS, friends of his and excellent journalists, urged him not to do the story as it was not a serious subject.
“By that point, I had written hundreds of serious stories and had been bored to tears by most of them,” French recalled. “My question was: What’s wrong with once in a while writing something that people actually want to read?”
He went to the fair, observed the winning hog and traveled to the farm in Elwood, Indiana, where it had been raised. Through his reporting, he learned that the story was “really about the American obsession with super-sizing everything. I became convinced that it had something to do with the vastness of the American landscape and American ambitions.”
The article won first place that fall in the features category in the Hearst Journalism Awards program for college students and earned French a trip to the championship that next summer in San Francisco. While there, he met one of the judges, Robert Haiman, an editor at the St. Petersburg Times. Haiman liked the story so much that he offered French a job at the newspaper.
After graduating from IU in 1981, French spent the next 27 years at the Times (today the Tampa Bay Times). While at the newspaper, he won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and a Sigma Delta Chi award for “Angels & Demons,” a series that explored the murder of an Ohio woman and her two teenage daughters. The article became a seminal piece of narrative journalism. Fellow Pulitzer recipient Anne Hull of The Washington Post said French’s series long dominated the craft and served as “a model for the rest of us to follow.” It and other narrative series he wrote for the newspaper were turned into books, including a New York Times best-seller.
“I love writing stories that come out one chapter at a time, where the reader can’t know the ending until they have reached the end,” said French. “Much more true to life. Much more powerful.”
French, today professor of practice in journalism for The Media School at IU, said his experience with the hog story taught him a huge lesson: “Don’t just write the stories other people say you should be writing. Go after the stories that intrigue you, and the chances are, they will intrigue readers as well.”
A fifth-grade teacher at Delaware Trail Elementary School in Indianapolis encouraged him to be a writer, and after working on his middle school and high school newspapers and yearbooks, French decided to make journalism his career and selected IU after also considering Northwestern and Missouri. He had been impressed by the beauty of the Bloomington campus and “loved that the students ran the IDS.” He started writing full time for the newspaper in August of his sophomore year and rose in the ranks to become the IDS’ editor-in-chief.
Tim Franklin, today Poynter Institute president, remembered filing his first story for the IDS for editing by French. Although only a freshman, Franklin felt confident about what he had written as he had already been working part time at Indiana newspapers for two years and had even won some journalism awards. What happened in the next few minutes, however, proved a revelation as French challenged him for detail, demanded context and labored over every word Franklin had written for clarity.
“When he was done, I had learned more about good writing in two hours than most do in a lifetime,” said Franklin. “He forever raised the bar.”
In his work for the Times, where he started as a reporter on the evening police beat, French became drawn to stories about people attempting to learn something important, “something about themselves, or about human nature or about the institutions that rule their lives.” He especially was drawn to stories where there were no black-and-white answers. One of the reasons he spent a year reporting inside a high school for a series, and later a book, called South of Heaven, was that he had grown tired of politicians and their lame pronouncements about public education.
“Most of them have never sent their kids to public schools and have no idea what teachers are up against,” he said. “To me, that’s a story worth devoting years of life to writing.”
In 2008, French left the Times, accepting an appointment at IU as the Riley Endowed Chair in Journalism. In addition to his IU teaching responsibilities, French has taught writing workshops across the country and around the world, served as a writing fellow at the Poynter Institute and taught in a nonfiction master's program at Goucher College.
“He has a body of work that students can learn and study from,” said David Finkel, a fellow Pulitzer Prize recipient. “Second, he knows how to explain journalism. I’ve heard him teach many times, and every time I’ve walked away excited by the possibilities of what we do.”
Although at heart he remains a reporter, French loves teaching.
“To this day,” he said, “I consider myself as a reporter who happens to teach.”
In the classroom French tries to coax his students into acknowledging “the terror of the blank page, the devil who whispers in our ear and tells us we are not good enough and that we are doomed to fail.”
Of the many lessons he considers essential for his students, including the realization that the writer is nothing without a reader, there is a crucial one summed up best by a verse from Bruce Springsteen’s song, Badlands: “You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Well, don’t waste your time waiting.”
By Ray E. Boomhower, Indiana Historical Society Press senior director