A former Brooklyn Paper reporter just won a major journalism award, but he hasn’t forgotten his community newspaper roots!
Alec MacGillis, who broke in his shoe-leather chasing scoops in Bay Ridge and Brooklyn Heights in the late ’90s, scored a prestigious Polk Award on Tuesday for his coverage of the presidential election with online outlet ProPublica — and he did it with the skills he honed collecting police blotters and chatting to cranks at community board meetings as a rookie reporter.
“It was such a valuable experience to be at those community board meetings, covering the various police precincts, just to learn how to talk to people who are completely unlike yourself,” said MacGillis, who now lives in Baltimore. “They have their gadflies, who can often seem kind of strange and out-to-lunch, but often they do have real tips and insights. You still deal with that now — I come across people who you worry might be too intense or strange, but in fact, they may really be onto something.”
MacGillis began working at the paper’s old Court Street office in 1997, alongside other Brooklyn Paper legends including founding publisher Ed Weintrob, editor Diane Webber, and then-reporter Vince DiMiceli, who says the Yale grad’s knack for the news business was clear from his first byline.
“Alec was one of the few reporters who walked into the Brooklyn Paper office with all the tools in place to become a great reporter,” said DiMiceli, who is now the Brooklyn Paper’s editor in chief. “I only hope he learned from me a fraction of the skills I learned from him.”
MacGillis still recalls covering the furor over planned waste-transfer stations, Brooklyn Bridge Park when it was just a twinkle in developers’ eyes, and the horrifying case of Abner Louima — who police officers from the 70th Precinct sodomized with a broomstick.
It was an eye-opening experience for a young man who’d never worked anywhere larger than New Haven, Conn.
“Suddenly living and working in this massive borough and taking the train all around — to Bay Ridge, to check the blotter way over in Bath Beach with all those Russians there — it was incredibly intense for me,” he said.
But after a year, the grind of turning in multiple stories every day and checking proofs until 2 am on production nights wore him down. Unable to find a gig at the dailies in New York, MacGillis left town, and eventually went to work at the Baltimore Sun and then the Washington Post, where he was part of a team that won a 2008 Pulitzer for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting.
Now at ProPublica, he spent much of last year writing about the election season’s big story — the great white working-class rebellion — well before it was a big story.
In the hours after Donald Trump’s victory, MacGillis collated his conversations with disgruntled Rust Belt voters into a lengthy post-election explainer called “Revenge of the Forgotten Class,” which promptly went viral amongst Americans still reeling from the results.
Judges at Long Island University hailed the piece as the culmination of MacGillis’s “prescient” coverage all year when recognizing him as their 2016 Polk Award winner for national reporting.
He’ll be back on his old beat to speak at a seminar alongside other winners at the university’s Downtown campus on April 6.
MacGillis says he knows the location well — he once covered a graduation there for this paper.