Q&A With Pulitzer-Prize Finalist Mark Di Ionno

Lawrence Lerner
973-353-1944

Mark Di Ionno (NCAS ’85) is a news columnist at the Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper. He has won the New Jersey Press Association's award for best column four times, and helped edit the paper's Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of the resignation of Gov. James McGreevey. He is also the author of three books about New Jersey culture and history, and a novelist whose latest title, The Last Newspaperman, captures the rise of tabloid journalism in the 1930s.

Di Ionno was named a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for his columns on Hurricane Sandy, the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, and other New Jersey issues. The honor put him in rarefied company in what is one of the more competitive Pulitzer categories, and brought his work national attention.

When he’s not tapping away at a keyboard, he’s teaching others the craft as an adjunct professor in Rutgers-Newark’s Journalism Program. We sat down with Mark to get his take on the state of journalism today, the Pulitzer honor, what it means for him to be reconnected to his alma mater.

 

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You’re a New Jersey guy, through and through, aren’t you.
Yes. I was born in Spring Lake and raised in Summit. After high school, I had a stint in the Navy, then went to Rutgers–New Brunswick for a year before transferring to the Newark campus. I live here, and I’ve worked for the Star-Ledger for almost 21 years and have written extensively about New Jersey.

You’ve also been a “newspaperman”—to use the historic term of your novel—all of your adult life.
That’s right. I was cross-trained in journalism in the Navy, then began working at newspapers right after and all through college. I worked at the News Tribune in Woodbridge, NJ, at the Morristown Record, and at the New York Post before coming to the Star-Ledger.

What changes have you seen in the journalism industry?
The rise of the crime/sports/celebrity juggernaut is a force to be reckoned with, but there’s work out there that’s essential to democracy. Unfortunately, publishers are gutting their papers as they care less about big-ticket civic journalism and more about generating content and hits online.

Your Pulitzer Prize honor was for commentary on some pressing issues of the day, including Hurricane Sandy and Tyler Clementi’s death. What was it like covering those stories, and did you have any sense, while covering them, that they might result in a Pulitzer nod?
The Clementi trial was a typical media feeding frenzy, which I try so hard to avoid. But my take on the case was so diametrically opposed to the accepted media narrative that it gave me standing with the defense, and I was able to get the first interview with Dharun Ravi, the defendant. Sandy was just a case of day-to-day, grind-it-out, on-location reporting. I was on the ground the day before the storm and didn't stop until 10 days after. I wrote something like 25 columns in 30 days, not including stuff I did for online only.

Did I think I'd get Pulitzer recognition? Never. I'm in the News Commentary category, which is the heavyweight division of the contest. All those people from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and Washington Post who write about big-ticket issues and national politics are entered there. I always tell people, "The guy who won covered U.S. Foreign policy for the Wall Street Journal. I covered Seaside Heights."

What does it mean to you to be a chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer?
The way I do my job hasn’t changed, but getting recognition from people in the industry is great affirmation of my career and the standards I’ve held myself to. The U.S. is a country founded and based on fairness, at least in the abstract sense. Freedom and democracy rest on that premise. So, it’s important to try to balance multiple sides in every story and shed light on unfair situations.

You’ve been an adjunct professor in the Rutgers-Newark Journalism Program for five years. You also returned to campus for a brief stint in the MFA Program in Creative Writing. What’s it been like to reconnect with your alma mater?
I never imagined myself returning to campus, though I always wanted to. So, it’s been great to be back and immersed as an adjunct and as a student. Teaching has been rewarding. I love giving back, and the students give me back a lot in return.

What kind of progress has the Journalism Program made in the time you’ve been here?
The program has been growing, and I’m seeing so much excitement from the students. It’s amazing, actually, for an industry that’s supposedly dying. We’re seeing non-majors switch into our program after taking one of our courses. That feels great, knowing they’ve been inspired by myself, Robin Fisher and other faculty members.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.