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ProPublica's Alec MacGillis wins Scripps Howard Award for 'Topic of the Year'

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Posted at 10:07 AM, Apr 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-07 10:07:31-04

ProPublica senior reporter Alec MacGillis realized he would not have to cover the 2016 presidential election in the way he had covered three previous cycles.

In taking a nontraditional route, MacGillis provided an extensive look into why American voters turned toward now-President Donald Trump this past election well before he was elected into office.

“MacGillis’ work this year was not only a model of on-the-ground reporting, insightful analysis and elegant writing. It was also one of the most prescient portfolios of journalism in 2016 and has done much to guide the post-election national conversation,” ProPublica senior editor Larry Roberts said.

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MacGillis wrote several pieces highlighting why Trump might surge with white, working class voters in places where economic growth lagged behind other portions of the country.

“What I set out to do in 2016 was to try to take the time — because I had the luxury of not being on the trail to take the time — to really go deep in one place and figure out what the deep historical forces were that had brought us to this point where you had someone like Donald Trump completely upending the election,” MacGillis said.

For that work, the Scripps Howard Awards honored MacGillis with its award in the Topic of the Year category. The award is given by the Scripps Howard Foundation, the philanthropic arm of The E.W. Scripps Company, which owns this website. 

The Scripps Howard Foundation will honor all award winners beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern on April 12 at The Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio. The event will be livestreamed at www.wcpo.com/scrippshowardawards for those who cannot attend.

“Recognizing the best journalism in the country is a fundamental mission of Scripps Howard Foundation,” said Liz Carter, president and CEO of the foundation. “We, along with the judges, were impressed with the quality of journalism in submissions from the smallest of hometown newspapers to newer digital media brands to the traditional powerhouses whose investigations extend to global audiences. We commend the work these journalists did in 2016 and the impact their words, videos and interactive elements will continue to have across our communities. They embody our motto of giving light and changing lives.”

MacGillis wrote several in-depth pieces throughout the election campaign and was able to use his intense research on the night of the election to write an analytical piece that captured what many pundits had not seen coming.

“This series of stories very much over the course of a year and the course of time told the story and kept its finger on the pulse of what was happening in real time,” said Wesley Lowery, a national reporter for the Washington Post and judge for the award.

MacGillis originally planned to write an in-depth piece on immigration but the research led the reporter to a surprising trend where mainstream Republican candidates struggled to take down a political newcomer.

“You could just tell by late 2015 that there was something very unusual going on and to have Donald Trump of all people to run very competitively in the Republican primary was a sign that something had gone seriously awry,” he said. “We just set out to figure out what that was and we decided to pick Dayton, Ohio as a good place to explore that question.”

Dayton provided a home to many who had lost jobs as companies left the city during the economic recession. Dayton also was a place MacGillis said once had a staunch Republican moderatism but became a place where Trump could thrive.

For MacGillis, going to places like Dayton provided an opportunity to grasp the difference between voters in booming areas such as some of the major metropolitan cities against those cities and towns that had not experience the economic recovery.

“It’s a big country and there are places out there that are really struggling,” he said. “One reason I’m so worried about the concentration of media in New York and (Washington) D.C. is that there is a greater than ever gap in this country between places that are doing well and places that are not doing well.

“To the extent that the media gets concentrated in places that are doing well, it becomes all the more likely that the struggle in the left behind places are going to go underreported.” 

The dedication to exploring the country for answers to political trends helped earn MacGillis the award, which he said was a rewarding acknowledgment of his work.

“It’s incredibly gratifying and meaningful,” he said. “When you’re doing articles as I am that’s sort of off the main daily news churn, you can’t help but wonder sometimes if your reporting is getting noticed and having influence. I’m not part of that regular flow, and I’m not on TV that much and just not part of that regular mix. To have your work be recognized nonetheless in this way is really heartening.”