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For ages, reporters have sought out interesting and dynamic personalities to anchor their stories. The theory here is that exciting people underlie exciting journalism.
On Feb. 8, the Washington Post Magazine turned this conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of reaching for an extraordinary subject, the magazine went for an ordinary one. It launched a multiepisode feature titled “The Adventures of Mizuki: A Continuing Story.” The feature promised a weekly look at the “twists and turns” in the life of Mizuki Tanabe, a 23-year-old paralegal at the Federal Trade Commission.
It wasn’t immediately obvious why the Post’s readership would care about the day-to-day doings of a low-level federal employee. But here’s how the mag justified the tale: “No matter how quiet or dramatic, ordinary or unusual, every person’s life is an unfolding narrative, with its own cliffhangers, surprises, touching revelations. We decided to prove the point by finding an everyday person who would let us write about his or her life.”
The project, however, turned out to prove the opposite point: A string of ho-hum stories chronicled Mizuki eating dinner with her parents and lunch with a friend, among other prosaic undertakings. Then the paper finally found some drama in the series: She quit. “I am no longer doing that project,” says Tanabe.
And the reason? The series was too dull for her. “[My friends] said, ‘Mizuki, you’re more fun than that. You live a more exciting life than that,’” says Tanabe, who says she never read the stories and relied on her friends for feedback.
The impressions of Tanabe’s friends wouldn’t surprise any other faithful readers of “The Adventures of Mizuki.” The serial biography, in fact, often reads like an attempt to belabor the boredom of Washington life.
For “touching revelations,” we learn that Tanabe is yearning to reconnect with her Japanese heritage.
For “surprises,” we learn that this daughter of Japanese immigrants is a “country music fan” and a “nonstop talker who yells her head off when she watches Atlantic Coast Conference football games.” (She attended the University of Virginia.)
For “cliffhangers,” we learn that after a frantic weekend of beer pong and church, “her throat felt like sandpaper, and her voice sounded stitched with fiberglass. Crawling wearily into bed that night, she considered the improbable and inopportune: Maybe, come morning, she’d need to call in sick.”
Average-Joe journalism has a proud legacy at the Post mag. Who can forget the ’90s series titled “Real Time”—in which reporters followed people around their workplaces?
The mag’s most recent attempt at the genre, Tanabe suggests, comes with a fatal flaw : If the reporter and subject don’t hit if off, there’ll be little of the drama that the Post promised in the first place. “I think no matter who it is, it’s going to come across as kind of boring,” says Tanabe. In her interactions with reporter Tyler Currie, Tanabe attests, “I never got to the point where I felt comfortable, and I tend to feel comfortable in most situations.”
The low comfort level left Currie scrambling for material that would add a telenovela quality to the paralegal’s daily wanderings. “With Mizuki, we lost that access pretty quickly—thus the static you observed,” says Currie.
Tanabe provided Dept. of Media with a critical scoop: The final installment of the Mizuki kabuki will come on March 7, with a visit by the paralegal and friends to the Clarendon Grill to hear a performance by Gonzo’s Nose, a “fun band,” in Tanabe’s words.
Tanabe’s withdrawal bungles a story line that the magazine was planning to run for months. Post Magazine Editor Tom Shroder says the Post attempted to prepare Tanabe for the weekly grind of playing the subject of an immersive series. “We really laid it on thick about all the difficulties that in the end she came to realize she didn’t like,” says Shroder. “In the beginning, she was insistent that she was really gung-ho, but she’s a young woman and couldn’t conceive of what it would be like.”
The Mizuki series premiered as part of a package of new front-of-the-book features designed to jazz up the magazine. One thread appears to unite the boxes and gimmicks: budgetary parsimony. “Question Celebrity” asks readers to send in questions on behalf of in-the-news luminaries; “My Life in Pictures” asks readers to send in photos of themselves; “Editor’s Query” asks readers to write in about specific experiences—for instance, “Tell us about a time when you were totally out of touch with reality.” The other regular items range from a profiley short to a new comic strip.
Shroder insists that the mag’s redo—which involves three new columnists as well as additional space—is actually “fairly expensive.” And he claims the idea behind it was to watch not the publication’s bottom line, but the reader’s: “Our main desire was to create a bunch of new features that you could get a real dividend for very little investment in [reading] time.”
And despite Tanabe’s withdrawal, Shroder hasn’t lost faith in everyday people. He has already launched a new adventure series, this one about a guy who works as a dog walker by day and DJ by night. “The second episode really has some unexpected happenings and drama in it,” says Shroder. —Erik Wemple