Alec MacGillis

Reporter at ProPublica

2017 Convocation Address

Alec MacGillis
Alec MacGillis

Thank you so much President Greene. Thank you to David Shribman and Patrice Franko, and the rest of the selection committee; and the Lovejoy descendants who made the trip here, which was pretty amazing. Thanks and thanks to all of you for coming here this evening.

The last time I was in a New England church of pretty much exactly this size with a chamber quartet was my wedding 15 years ago exactly, or 15 years ago. That was slightly less nerve wracking. But, it turned out okay. We’ll get a fresh start.

Before I start, I want to recognize some people in the audience. First my parents, Don and Ingrid, who drove up here for the occasion from western Massachusetts. This is a meaningful event for them partly because my dad spent his career in journalism doing essential work and setting a great example. Also, he may not admit this, but I suspect he came all this way partly because he is excited about my getting a degree that doesn’t cost him anything.

I also want to recognize Mike Pride in his wife Monique who came here as well. Mike, as some of you know was for many years the editor of the Concord Monitor, one of the best small papers in the country. There is no way I would be here today without the editors I was lucky to have along the way. Mike is right there at the top of the list.

Before I start, I also want to say a quick word about Las Vegas. As President Greene said, I have written quite a bit about gun politics over the years. I am happy to talk – well, I’m not happy to be talking about this. But, I would be glad to talk about this more later.

I believe very firmly that the proponents of stronger gun laws in this country have been unduly fatalistic in a self-defeating way about the prospects for stronger gun laws. I have been sort of making that case in my journalism for awhile. We will see where things go from here on that. But, I am glad to talk about that more later.

This is just a tremendous honor. It is a little daunting to be honest. For one thing, it is a little weird to be standing here in these robes. I was on the higher ed beat for several years back at the Baltimore Sun; which means it was my job to hold accountable the people who wore the fancy robes.

This feels a bit funny. It was my 12-year-old son who finally persuaded me to get over my misgivings. He said, “Just wear the robe and be Pope for a day.”

More seriously though, it’s daunting. Because the award is named after someone who gave his life in the pursuit of writing and publishing on the greatest cause of his time. Because previous recipients include not just some real giants of the profession, but people who put themselves at real risk in their reporting. If you are like me, a reporter who operates mostly in the realm of national politics and domestic policy, it is hard to see your work as courageous and anywhere close to the way it is for people who cover strife and upheaval overseas.

But, I do recognize that even the work of the domestic investigative political reporter has become more contested in the past year. I see and accept this affirmation on behalf of the profession as a whole. Also, coming here has given me a chance to think a bit about what has tied together the work that I have been doing the past couple of years.

At first glance, the work seems pretty disparate. But what connects it, I would say is a notion that I have become convinced. It explains a lot of what’s going on these days. Namely, that we are suffering greatly in all sorts of ways from the growing gaps between places in this country.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about income inequality, the gaps between the one percent and the 99 percent, the 20 percent and the 80 percent. That is indeed a massive problem that poses a real threat to our democracy. But, I believe we also need to be focusing more on a related problem, the gaps between places.

We have always had wealthier and poorer places in this country, of course. But, the gaps have been growing a lot bigger in recent years. Cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco all had per capita incomes higher than the national average in 1980.

But now, it’s a lot higher. This dynamic shows no sign of reversing even though these places have been getting more and more expensive to live in. GE just moved its headquarters to Boston. Aetna is moving from Hartford to New York. It is s a winner take all, a rich get richer effect.

Of course this regional inequality plays out within states as well. My hometown Pittsfield, Mass. was for most of the 20th century a thriving small city with a strong middle class. Thanks partly to the big GE plant in town. Now, GE is gone. Pittsfield’s per capita income is 40 percent below the state average, light years behind Boston.

I hardly need to be pointing this out here in Waterville, of course. This town is fortunate to have this college. It has so much else going for it, including the Mariner Pub, which I visited last night, a good place. A brew pub, I’m sorry. But, it’s no secret that economic vitality in  the state has disproportionately clustered around Portland in a way that was not the case years ago.

I have written and spoken elsewhere on the causes of this regional inequality between winner take all places and left behind ones. As I see it, it’s some combination of upper middle class professionals choosing to cluster in places with lots of job options and people like themselves.

In our economy becoming increasingly dominated by a handful of giant companies that are drawing wealth into the places where those companies are based, I’m glad to speak on that, the causes later in the Q&A session. But now, I am instead going to focus on the consequences of this regional inequality. How it ties into what I have been reporting and writing on.

First, I’m going to talk about the media. Not just because we in the media love to talk about ourselves, which we do, but because the problem of regional inequality is in part about the media. Two of those giant companies that are drawing wealth into certain pockets of the country are of course Google and Facebook. You may have heard of them.

As you may know, those two companies now get a majority of all digital ad revenue in the country.They get every single new dollar of digital ad revenue that is coming in. This contributes to regional inequality by amassing money that used to be spread all around the country in one particular place, Silicon Valley.

But, it’s also exacerbating regional imbalance of another sort, news coverage. It is making it even harder for newspapers in small towns and mid-sized metro areas to survive. Over the past decade, one out of every four reporting jobs has vanished across the country. Actually the number is worse now.

That is a 2013 number. It has gotten worse. Over the same period, the number of reporters in Washington has doubled. Or, look at it another way; as online media jobs have replaced newspaper jobs, 73 percent of all Internet publishing jobs are now concentrated in either the a Acela corridor or on the West Coast.

This is personal for me. I was raised in a newspaper family watching my father and his colleagues put out another legendary small paper, the Berkshire Eagle. In my first few years out of college, I worked for three different small papers in New England starting at a tiny Weekly in Northwest Connecticut where it was just two of us putting out the paper each week.

The work at those papers could often seem pretty mundane and lonesome. I was well aware how much more exciting life was for my classmates who had ended up in Boston, or Washington, or New York. But, I was also constantly aware that if my colleagues and I were not covering this or that particular story, nobody would be.

The tree would fall unheard. Well, that little weekly in Northwest Connecticut where I started out shut down a few weeks ago. The other papers are still hanging on, but with vastly diminished resources.

It’s not just small town papers either, of course. I spent five years at The Baltimore Sun. I still live in Baltimore. It drives me crazy to see how much in the city goes undercovered. Because the talented people who are left in that depleted newsroom can only get to so much. I will admit that it not only upsets me. But, it makes me feel kind of guilty.

I am immensely fortunate to now be at an organization that is freed from the depressing industry trends. Because it is one of the few that has made the nonprofit model work on a large scale. Thank you donors, you can give at ProPublica dot org.

But, I can’t help but wonder sometimes. Why aren’t I still doing my part at one of those mid-sized papers? Well, the way I have been dealing with that nagging question and guilt is to make sure that as much as possible, I am reporting stories in the places that are not getting the attention they deserve.

To the extent that I do write about the saturated places, Washington and New York, I try to make sure that, A, I’m not being redundant with what has already being done by others; B, that I’m finding ways to show why those places have drifted so much from the rest of the country.

That is how regional inequality is playing out in the media. That in turn relates to what I have been seeing happening politically. It’s no secret by now that the places where Donald Trump did much better than Republican candidates from the past correlates strongly with places that have been left behind. That have seen their fortunes fall in recent years and decades.

We can debate endlessly, just how much of what was driving votes in those areas was economic anxiety per se as opposed to other political strains? Some not very pretty that the Trump campaign tapped into. As I saw it, there was a whole lot of stuff mixed together. But, I don’t think there is any getting around the fact that the feeling of being left behind would exacerbate that other stuff. It would expose you to a certain sort of political message.

It is not just about your own economic situation. This is what is often missed. It is the place where you live. It is seeing things sliding down around you, and seeing families coming apart, and seeing a place become a shadow of what it was when you were a kid. Or, when your parents or grandparents were your age. If you see dependency on safety net programs rising all around you, it is not surprising that you might grow resentful about that, and welcome a governor who says he is going to clamp down on that. Does it sound familiar?

If you see the winner take all cities becoming increasingly dominated by one party, which is what has been happening. It is not surprising, if you start to feel alienated from that party. Again, the media plays a role in this as well. The coverage gap I talked about before has political consequences too.

First of all, it’s a lot easier to hate the media, if you don’t know anyone in the media. If you don’t see hardworking reporters anymore at your Town Hall, or courthouse, or School Board meeting, or high school football game, the media to you means something totally foreign. Most of all though, there is the basic fact.

That if you don’t have local news, it’s going to affect your politics. Whether and how you vote. It’s going to make you feel more disconnected from any sort of community or civic fabric. It’s going to send you in search of information elsewhere.

Take a woman I spent a lot of time talking to in the past year by the name of Tracy. A heavy construction worker who lives in a working class suburb of Dayton called Miamisburg. Everything about her would make you think that she voted for Hillary. She was raised in a Democratic family. She is a single mom with three grown daughters.

She belongs to a union, the Operating Engineers. She has been constantly harassed and discriminated against on the job on her very male and heavy job. She voted for Obama in 2008. But, she couldn’t stand Hillary. When she talked about her, it was this whole welter about Benghazi, and the e-mail scandal, and the Wall Street speeches. Some of it founded in reality, some of it not.

I asked Tracey where she gets her news? She does not get the Dayton Daily News. She doesn’t have cable. Mostly she goes online. She surfs around the web. She gets a lot of her news from Facebook. When the Trump campaign, and the Russians, and whoever else were sending out the anti-Hillary stuff on Facebook, which was very lucrative for Facebook. It was hitting its intended target in Tracey, a swing voter in a swing state.

Here is the poignant thing. Tracey herself is aware of what an easy mark she was. How shaky her information sources are. “No one that’s voting knows all of the facts,” she told me. “It’s a shame. They keep us so bleeping busy and poor that we don’t have the time.”

Now, I’m going to talk about something else besides Trump voting that is correlated with the left behind places. It is something that I have spent quite a lot of time reporting on this past year, Heroin.

Yes. It is true that the opiate epidemic has touched all levels of society. But, there is no getting around that it has been especially deadly in the left behind places. It began a decade and a half ago in what is probably our most left behind place of all, Central Appalachia.

It radiated out from there. Here in New England, it’s hitting hardest, not in Hanover, but in Manchester, and Fall River not Framingham. In this state, the highest overdose rate is in Washington County, not Lincoln County.

Here is what the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has had to say about it and report, the issue last year. “The 20 New England counties that have had overdosed mortality rates above 16 in 2014 have several characteristics in common, including poverty, disability, unemployment rates that exceed New England averages, and above average declines in manufacturing and manual labor occupations since 1970.”

It comes back again to regional inequality. When the drug companies were pushing painkillers that they knew were more addictive than they let on, those painkillers were especially prevalent in places with a high proportion of people with genuine problems with pain from years of hard manual labor.

As for the younger people who fall in prey in these places, it’s not hard to see why you would be more susceptible growing up in a place where life seems to lack much purpose. Where you’re less likely to have an intact family and community. Where you are eager for escape

I realize this all has been pretty bleak. But, I am going to end on a happier note. Earlier this year, I reported a story about Jared Kushner’s family company taking extreme advantage of the tenants at the many apartment complexes it owns in the declining inner ring suburbs of Baltimore. The rentals are in lousy shape.

The tenants who are both White and Black are constantly getting hit with questionable late fees, and court fees, and taken to court for back rent and broken leases even when they’re in the right. The story really grabbed me. I think it has to do with it having tapped into a lot of what I have been talking about here tonight.

This was a story that should not have taken as long as it did to be uncovered. After all, these apartment complexes are just 40 miles from Washington, D.C. But those 40 miles may as well be 40,000 given how many other big disturbing things in Baltimore go uncovered by the national media.

It was also a story that demonstrated how large the gaps have gotten more generally. That you could have all of these people living in these complexes who are nearly all unaware that their landlord was one of the most powerful people in the country living in a fifteen thousand dollar per month house in Washington with his wife, the president’s daughter; and sitting in the office closest to the Oval Office.

The story helped you understand the politics of our moment. Because I met a whole lot of people in these complexes who are as disconnected from the media and civic life as Tracey was out in Dayton. Some told me they would still support Trump even after hearing who their landlord was.

Many more told me they hadn’t voted at all because they never do. I will admit the story also grabbed me because it revealed my own ignorance. I had lived in Baltimore for nine years. Yet, I was only dimly aware that these sorts of complexes even existed. Going into them and seeing what life was like at these margins revealed a whole new universe to me.

The story focused partly in one tenant in particular, a woman by the name of Kamiia Warren. She is a single mom who works as a home health aide and moved her three kids out of one of the complexes back in 2010. Because the older woman next door started acting aggressively. Kamiia got written permission to move out ahead of her lease.

But three years later after the Kushners bought the complex, she started getting court summons saying that she owed more than three thousand dollars in back rent for having left the lease early. She couldn’t track down a written permission at first. A judge slapped her with a judgment of nearly five thousand dollars with all of the late fees and court fees piled on. Her wages and bank account were garnished.

Her bank account was swept clean. Even after she finally found the form, she still couldn’t get the remaining forty-six hundred dollar judgment lifted. It sat on her record for years hurting her credit rating and making it hard for her to take out the loan that she needs to start a small assisted living center of her own; which is her life’s dream.

Well, after the article appeared, a big law firm in Baltimore offered to take on her case pro bono. I heard recently that they had managed to get the lien lifted just like that. They just called up and said, “This ridiculous lien you have got, can we do something about that?” Yeah. We have got…. Just like that, all it took was a lawyer. They got rid of it.

Meanwhile just last week two other local law firms brought a big class action lawsuit on behalf of the other tenants at the complexes. But, that’s not all. I have been getting a lot of inquiries from people who wanted to help Kamiia. She was initially reluctant to accept anything, but finally told me that she would accept them only in order to fund her plans for an assisted living center.

The checks have come from all over. They are not coming from New York, or D.C., or San Francisco. They are coming from Bellingham, Washington, and Chickaloon, Alaska, and Wichita Falls, Texas. One check from Hailey, Idaho was from a whole group of people who pooled their contributions together. Most of the cards didn’t just have checks, but handwritten notes.

I am going to read something from just one of the cards, which came from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, a small town in Lancaster County, and which is quite conservative territory.

“Thank you for agreeing to deliver the enclosed check. I am astounded Ms. Warren wants to use the money for helping others when it would probably be helpful for her and her children. She really must be quite a remarkable young woman. Please let her know that I don’t really care what she does with the money. It’s hers. I just want her to know how touching I found her story. And that there really are people who have a heart. And big corporations don’t always have to rule the world.”

It turns out that some people do care about the left behind places. We just have to go there first. Thank you very much.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Lovejoy Award

Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.

Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.

Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.

For more information, visit