I probably should have known who Joseph Rago was, but I’m not embarrassed to admit that before last week, I didn’t. Because that’s exactly what he wanted.
If anyone can be called an editorial prodigy, the prolific editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal was it. Hired fresh out of college in 2005, by the time of his untimely death last week at 34, Rago had written an astonishing 1,353 pieces for the newspaper — about one every two days.
His topics ranging from economics to national security to new drug approvals.
And it wasn’t just the sheer volume of his output, however impressive. A conservative skeptic since at least his Dartmouth days, Rago’s editorials were masterpieces of “reported opinion,” weaving original journalism and his own encyclopedic knowledge. He did not just prove a point, but did it in a way that was a pleasure to read.
His approach was the opposite of hectoring — using humor, anecdote and subtle rhetoric to inform and persuade the reader about serious, often complicated subjects.
Rago’s impact was something for writers twice his age to envy.
At 28, he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for what will probably be his main legacy, a series of editorials published in 2010-2011 carefully unpicking the faulty assumptions and misleading rationales presented in favor of the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.”
Drawing on conversations with members of Congress, government officials, insurance executives and others, Rago’s critiques helped shape political opposition to the law. They still inform some of the central arguments against it.
In awarding him the Pulitzer, the prize committee: “No matter where you fall in the debate of healthcare reform, the arguments advanced by Joseph Rago in his series of editorials in The Wall Street Journal were impossible to ignore. Not paying attention to these editorials was not an option for policymakers.”
On that note, the list of people paying tribute to Rago included Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who tweeted, “Joe Rago was a brilliant talent.”
Fittingly, Rago’s last editorial for the WSJ once again addressed the epic subject of the American healthcare system. This time, he launched a blistering attack against Republicans in Congress, for failing to repeal and replace the ACA as promised, after almost a decade of outspoken opposition and despite having majorities in both houses.
With typical wry humor, he noted: “Voters may repeal and replace the Senators who broke their promise.”
According to those who knew him, the most remarkable thing about Rago wasn’t his prodigious talent, but his humility. The majority of his editorials were published without a personal byline, signed instead by “The Editorial Board.”
Rago’s short but meteoric career also contains an important lesson for newspaper publishers struggling with falling ad revenues and the challenges of online pay walls.
While solving the riddles of monetization and profitability are key to their future survival, publishers must be confident enough to use those broader, if less tangible, metrics of success: intellectual impact, public enlightenment and the greater good.