Fourteen years ago, John Brecher, then Page One editor of The Wall Street Journal, listened to a story pitch from an editor in the Journal's Washington Bureau. The pitch concerned paczki, the jelly-jammed doughnuts craved by Poles on the day before Lent.
"What's that word again?" Brecher said. The editor repeated it phonetically -"punch-key"- and spelled it. Brecher chuckled. "I don't even care what the story is," he said, "I just want that word on Page One."
John Brecher, recipient of the 2014 Lawrence Minard Editor Award, makes editing look easy. In his bow tie and suspenders, his loafers up on his desk, Brecher, 62 years old, belies the age-old image of editor as cranky scourge of anyone foolish enough to carry a notebook.
Rather, he has earned a reputation as a "reporter's editor," the guy who believes a reporter can do the story before she does, who'll sit on the phone for an hour talking about what the story needs or doesn't need, and who makes the story better without leaving a fingerprint.
"When I was a reporter at the Miami Herald, I often felt that my editors didn't give me the treatment and guidance I thought I deserved," Brecher says of his first job. "When I would tell them that, they would say to me, 'Well, when you're an editor, you'll understand.' And you know, I never understood."
Ron Suskind won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize writing for Brecher at the Journal, which won seven Pulitzers while Brecher was running Page One.
"You die alone and you write alone," says Suskind, now a best-selling author. "Your relationship to sources is transactional, the audience is distant, theoretical, rarely touched. You write for your editor, to hand it to him or to her and say, 'So, whaddya think?' Doing that with John Brecher--among the great editors of his generation--resulted in the finest stories I ever wrote. I know an army of reporters who'd say the same."
Brecher grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. He started reading The Wall Street Journal at the age of 7, picking stocks for his father to purchase. He knew editing suited him best barely two years after joining the Miami Herald in 1973.
"By his 22nd birthday, he was editing people twice his age," says his wife, Dottie Gaiter, who met and fell in love with Brecher on their first day working together at the Herald.
Brecher says he liked reporting but, "I got into the business to change the world. It was readily apparent that you could have a lot more impact as an editor. You could really affect a lot of reporters and a lot of storiesat the same time as an editor in a way you couldn't as a reporter."
In addition to the Herald, where he served two stints, Brecher has worked at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Newsweek magazine, the Journal (three times), and now at Bloomberg News. For 12 years, he and Dottie wrote "Tastings," the Journal's wine column. They've also authored four books on wine.
Brecher politely declines to say which job he'd liked best, but says he's been "lucky to have been at places that are going through a special time that are talked about years later."
A few closely guarded secrets about Brecher: His favorite magazine is People. He and Dottie coined the term "critter wines" (think kangaroos). Stories he oversaw essentially gutted the U.S. tobacco industry, but his proudest achievement is creating "Open That Bottle Night." He once tried to moonwalk, a la Michael Jackson ("It was ugly," Dottie says).
He loves to find stories in nooks and niches others might skip over. Bill Grueskin, a former Brecher acolyte who's now dean of academic affairs at Columbia's journalism school, says Brecher "has the most unerring eye for a story in the business. He can come across an innocuous quote at the end of a press release and say, 'That's a story." The thing about John is, he was right about 99 percent of the time."
Once the story gets going, Brecher can get more excited about it than the reporter. "It's really important for me to feel the story inside," he says. "The problem is, once it's in my head, it's like an alien force that takes me over."
Dottie knows this all too well. She recalls an investigative series on Medicare by Bloomberg News reporter David Voreacos. "For weeks, I thought that when we went to bed at night that David Voreacos was in the middle of us, which was one too many people," Gaiter says. "He would tell me what great stuff David found today. He suffers for his art."
Yet, as with wine, Brecher has a discerning pallet when choosing which stories to do. Why settle for simply "good" when you can go for "Delicious!" (two of the five wine rankings he and Dottie used).
"The biggest mistake editors make is to approve ideas that are just OK," Brecher says. "If we could all stop doing that, all of journalism would be better. If a story is just pretty good, it's a waste. You have to ask yourself: Is it good work? Is it important work? That's all that matters."