A "Cliffhanger" About a Player
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, March 2000|
A "Cliffhanger" About a Player
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
NOTHING BETTER EXEMPLIFIES the soaring ambitions of the Oregonian than a series called "The Player," written by Tom Hallman Jr., that ran for seven days beginning November 21.
Hallman set out to tell Portland readers about Andrew Wiederhorn, a member of Portland's new, young, wealthy elite. The story wasn't front-page news, although several of the installments ran there. The events he described had taken place almost a year before the series debuted. It wasn't precisely a business story, either, although the series recounts the founding of the high-flying Wilshire Financial Services Group by Wiederhorn, its financial crisis, Wiederhorn's ouster and his determination to start another financial group.
Even the oldest Oregonian subscribers had never seen anything like it. "The Player" is journalism as old-fashioned serial, a nearly 18,000-word story about the rise and fall and rise of a compelling character. (The series can be found online at www.oregonlive.com/business/ 99/11/ bz112106.html.)
Accompanying the first installment was an explanation by Managing Editor Jack Hart of how the paper created "The Player." Months before he began reporting, Hallman had written a somewhat flattering story about Wiederhorn and his company. When the paper began running stories in October 1998 about Wilshire's collapse, Hallman contacted Wiederhorn and asked for permission to follow him through his financial crisis.
"Wiederhorn agreed to Hallman's request and gave him full access to the company," Hart wrote. "For the next 13 months, Hallman interviewed company employees, board members and business associates of three companies under the Wilshire umbrella.
"He read internal company documents, sat in on strategy sessions and traveled with Wiederhorn to Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Wilmington, Del."
Wiederhorn says Hallman never disclosed what shape his story might take. Wiederhorn says he ultimately trusted the reputation of Hallman, who has twice been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and who has won numerous major journalism awards.
"I think he did a really good, thorough job of it," Wiederhorn said in a telephone interview three weeks after the series concluded. "He spent an enormous amount of time with me. He traveled with me a dozen times. He did a great job of making the people around me feel comfortable. And he called me over and over to make sure he got it right."
The series was launched after Oregonian Editor Sandra Mims Rowe approached Hart with the idea of taking an in-depth look at Wiederhorn. Wilshire's role in a complex and fragile world of mutual fund and pension investment affected thousands of small investors. What's more, the collapse of what had become a $3 billion business threatened to send out a national economic ripple.
Hart turned to Hallman. "Hallman writes about people, he tells stories," Rowe says. "This was a chance to write about a world that most of our readers know nothing about. So much of what newspapers do is event-driven. People want more than that. They want insight into what really happened. We thought we had a chance to do that here."
A decade ago, the Oregonian might have hustled Hallman or a business reporter out to do a quick-hitter, a 25-inch Sunday profile to augment its daily coverage, Hallman says. When Rowe came to Hallman in October 1998, she merely suggested the story might be bigger than that, he says.
"The great thing about Sandy is that she makes the suggestion and then backs off. She's not meddling; she's there in spirit with you. You know she wants something more and trusts you to find it."
Hallman decided to play the curious innocent, translating business argot and procedure into terms that even he could understand. "I'm a guy who can't even balance my checkbook. I asked such dumb questions, you couldn't believe it."
The admission of some ignorance worked for Hallman, Wiederhorn says. Hallman's insistence on understanding before moving on fostered trust in his accuracy.
"I let him look at a lot of confidential information with the understanding that he wouldn't run it without informing me. I trusted him because I thought he was really trying to understand what we were going through."
The story Wiederhorn shared with Hallman was a "cliffhanger," Hallman says. This story would require Hart's guidance to sustain its narrative drive, he adds. "Hart's way over my head when it comes to narrative theory," he says. "I just know that six or seven years ago, I couldn't have done that story."
Judging from the more than 700 letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls to the Oregonian, readers devoured "The Player." Even the paper's stoutest critic, Mark Zusman, editor of the alternative Willamette Week, calls it the best read and most talked about story in Portland in years.
The story is Dickensian in its scope, in its detail and in its refusal to lapse into morality play. Although Willamette Week chastised Hallman for hero-worship (Zusman called the series "a blow job"), readers who responded to the paper saw in the story a depiction of a real life.
If Wiederhorn felt any discomfort, he says he found it in the details--private jets, limousines, Rolex watches, Armani suits.
"Most of the feedback I got from people was positive," Wiederhorn says. "People close to me were concerned about the sensational way I was portrayed. I understand it is Tom's style to be descriptive, to bring color to the story. I think he was fair. I think some people view me as a villain and some as a hero. I will tell you, people all over Portland read it, people on Wall Street trading desks read it. I couldn't believe how widely it circulated."
Hallman reveled in the reader response. "For seven days people were caught up in an old-fashioned story," Hallman says. "I'm a firm believer that people hunger for those kinds of stories. And that is the kind of story they aren't going to get anywhere else." ###