2017 Minard Award Honoree

Nick Varchaver


When Nick Varchaver receives the first draft of a feature story from one of his writers, there is typically little delay before "the process" begins. He prints up a fresh copy, changing the font to Times New Roman, the point size to 12, and the right margin to a narrow 3 5/8". Then he bends over the draft at his desk, immovable as a plaster cast, a hand at each temple, and reads. When he is done, he will read it a second time-and a third, fourth, fifth, and often sixth time before he says a word to the writer. 

The writers have learned to love the wait, shocking as that may seem. For during that time something extraordinary will occur- and they know it. Their stories will get immeasurably stronger, smarter, better. Their prose will get more precise. Their thinking, sharper. This, before a single word is changed. It all happens in Varchaver's head, and in the former white space of each page of the draft now filled with ballpoint scrawls, and in the long emails to the writer that will surely follow: Do you mean this (fill-in-the-blank)... or do you mean this? As Varchaver himself will say, "I'm a hard case for clarity." By fully immersing himself, he's able to see the way forward. "I once asked him what he looks for in this trance of reading and rereading," recalls Clifton Leaf, Fortune's editor-in-chief. "And Nick answered, 'All of a sudden, things that make sense the first five times I read them...stop making sense.'""What he didn't say, of course, is how damn good he is at finding what ultimately does make sense in any given tale," says Leaf. "Nick has an uncommon talent for identifying the holes in an argument-or pinpointing that key nugget that's missing from a narrative-and then helping his writers fill those gaps gracefully."

Varchaver began developing that keen sense of story at The American Lawyer, where he landed a job as a reporter shortly after receiving a Master's degree at Columbia Journalism School. At The American Lawyer, he also got his first taste of Steve Brill-and of Brill's reporting rigor, which Varchaver relished from the start. There, he wrote a number of powerful stories on the criminal justice system, including one feature about an Indianapolis man jailed for 19 months without ever being brought to trial-including for four months after prosecutors had dropped the charges-which the late Anthony Lewis of the Times praised for its "meticulous care" in reporting. Later stints took him to SmartMoney, and then to Brill's Content, before he was recruited by Fortune in 1999 to run the magazine's short-lived "e-Company" section and to write the occasional deep-dive feature-tales that often explored the dark edges of both business and humanity. A profile of inventor and serial litigant Jerome Lemelson captured the bizarre scene of a cancer-ridden, billionaire patent troll, celebrating yet one more empty legal victory from his hospital deathbed. Another piece-the definitive 11,000-word saga of Bernie Madoff that he wrote with James Bandler and Doris Burke-stirringly revealed the shame of the notorious swindler as he faced his accusers in court. (That story won the 2010 Loeb award for magazine reporting. With the Minard prize, Varchaver will now be one of only three people to win a Loeb for both writing and editing.)

But it was as an editor-particularly of complex corporate narratives and investigative pieces-that Varchaver found his true calling. In 2011, he edited "Inside Pfizer's Palace Coup," written by Peter Elkind, Jennifer Reingold, and Doris Burke, which won a Loeb Award the following year. Then, in 2013, he shepherded two features - Katherine Eban's "Dirty Medicine" and Reingold's "Squeezing Heinz" - that would later be named finalists for the Loeb. The year after that, Varchaver pulled off the same feat - editing two more Loeb finalists: Elkind's "Inside Elon Musk's $1.4 Billion Score" and Reingold's unforgettable tale of Ron Johnson disastrous run as J.C. Penney's CEO ("How to Fail in Business While Really, Really Trying"). Last year, yet another Varchaver-edited story-Peter Elkind's "Inside The Hack Of The Century," was a Loeb finalist. In the case of the J.C. Penney narrative, the editor helped Reingold reconstruct a telling anecdote that captured the board's self-involved disconnection from the calamity unfolding around it: a squabble over the chewiness of the chocolate-chip cookies served to them in quarterly meetings.

That element of human frailty-be it hubris, desperation, yearning, or some other consuming emotion-can be found in many of the stories Varchaver edits. He has a sixth sense for their often-obscured roles in unfolding business plots, say his writers. "The really scary thing is," says Reingold, "sometimes he can channel my own thoughts better than I can. I'll elaborate on something; he'll write it down. Then I'll wish I'd written it that way in the first place." "Nick is the unsung hero of every story of mine that he has edited," says Elkind, who spent two decades writing features for Fortune. "I've never had a more thoughtful and gifted editor-and I've worked with several great ones." Indeed, talk to any of Varchaver's writers and fellow editors over the years and they all return to the same themes: "his relentless effort to make the most complex story clearer, smarter, and fairer," as Elkind puts it; "the countless hours he spends structuring and streamlining," as his longtime Fortune colleague Brian O'Keefe says; and his uncanny ability, notes Reingold, "to extract the story's true essence." The legendary financial journalist Carol Loomis, who spent six decades at Fortune-earning no fewer than five lifetime achievement awards, including one of her four Loebs-says that when she looks back at stories of hers that Varchaver edited, she is invariably "grateful once again" for the guidance he supplied. "When Nick was my editor, I always knew I had his full attention," says Loomis. "If my story had holes in the first draft-lacked an air-tight argument, say, as to why we were spending 6,000 words on this subject at this precise time-he had a viewpoint and a plan for attacking the problem. Then he would leave me alone to think about it. And when I produced another draft, he was ready to give it a meticulous, close edit." Says Loomis, "It always improved the story."

Gerald Loeb Awards