Jeff Kunerth’s father taught journalism at Iowa State University for 30 years. His brother was a newspaper publisher for even longer. At first Kunerth didn’t want to go into the family business. But after being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, teaching scores of Rollins College and University of Central Florida (UCF) writing students, and spending 41 years reporting at the Orlando Sentinel, it seems Kunerth has accepted that journalism is just a part of his DNA.
Kunerth, who is an adjunct professor at UCF, says there’s always room for improvement. That’s one of the reasons why even after years of being a professional journalist, he went back to school to pursue a Master’s in Fine Art with a focus on narrative journalism and nonfiction writing.
“When it comes to writing well, I believe more in perspiration, than simply inspiration,” Kunerth says.
He credits fine-tuning his skills in literary journalism at Groucher College for his Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2013. In part Kunerth’s coverage of the hazing rituals of Florida A&M University’s marching band which killed drum major Richard Champion put a spotlight on this serious issue which eventually led to some top administrators resigning.
“What I love about literary journalism is the ability to drill down into the story,” Kunerth says. “You can show readers who a person is, how an event—even a tragic event like a young man being beaten to death—happened and give them a better understanding of it.”
According to Greg Dawson, Kunerth’s coworker at the Sentinel, Kunerth was a hard worker and excellent storyteller. “Reading his copy was like running your hand across seamless varnished woodwork,” Dawson says.
When Kunerth was a journalism student, most of his classmates were drawn to the craft because they were interested in finding the truth. While he himself had an interest in that fundamental principle of journalism too, he was also attracted to the storytelling nature of feature writing. For him hard news or the traditional who, what, where, why, when, and how of a story is “the bones and muscle of reporting and feature writing is the heart and flesh of it,” he says.
Now, Kunerth, who has written two nonfiction books, one on Central Florida hiking trails and “Trout: A True Story of Murder, Teens, and the Death Penalty,” enjoys helping the next generation of writers hone their skills. He says he believes anyone who can write clearly, concisely, and compellingly in today’s meme-loving, emoji-heavy world may have a better edge over their competition. “Being able to put a sentence together is important. It’s one of the best ways we have to communicate. Learning how to write better, no matter what you end up doing with it, is never a waste of time,” Kunerth says.