When you joined the Arizona Daily Wildcat newsroom staff, you welcomed the paper into every part of your life. It was your amazing new friends and the parties you frequented. It was the reason you skipped class and the second home where you slept (on a nasty green couch) after staying up all night to write a paper. But there was also a whole lot of journalism going on. I learned how to be a reporter, how to be aggressive – and that there is such a thing as too aggressive.
One Sunday in late November 1999, my first semester at the Wildcat, the news editors assigned me to report on a tip that UA’s fraternities would stop serving alcohol at their house parties. Brett Erickson, the assistant news editor and the paper’s only member of the Greek system, had heard about the change, appropriately, over beers at a party the night before.
This was the most newsworthy story I’d been given (it was still a mystery to me how reporters found news with their own eyes and ears). The editors wanted to break it on Monday’s front page. We needed official confirmation quickly. The official I needed to reach was a UA employee called the “Greek Life Coordinator.” Someone at the paper had his home number, or knew the kind of reporting magic tricks that make contact information appear.
I dialed with urgency, listened to it ring ring ring, let the answering machine greeting play, and left a message. I repeated this exercise 15 minutes later. And again 15 minutes after that. And, well, I kept calling this low-level official four times an hour all that Sunday, probably recording a fresh voicemail each time. It never occurred to me, age 19, that this wasn’t a winning strategy, or that it might be a bit excessive.
I didn’t get the story until the next day. Interviewing the Greek Life Coordinator, I could tell he was furious with me, but never mentioned the calls. He said he was away from his house all day.
Later that week, Mark Woodhams pulled me aside in the newsroom. Turns out the coordinator did have something to say about my phone calls, but preferred to say it to another grown up, the student media advisor. Woodhams let me know that the official felt all the calls, taken together, had been “abusive.” Maybe I should try something different next time, Woodhams suggested, without any admonishment. That was the first time I realized there are lots of ways to get information and reach sources. I could feel myself grow as a reporter in that moment.
Ryan Gabrielson is a senior reporter covering criminal justice at The Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2012, he reported on a state-run police force’s alarming inability to solve crimes at California developmental centers. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Gabrielson previously spent five years reporting for the East Valley Tribune where his stories exposed scholarship charities committing tax fraud and widespread academic and financial malfeasance at the nation’s largest community college district. In 2009, he and Tribune colleague Paul Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation of immigration enforcement by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Gabrielson’s reporting has also been honored with two George Polk Awards, a Casey Medal, an IRE Award, the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting, a Sigma Delta Chi Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and a national Emmy.
The Monitor in McAllen, Texas gave him his first daily reporting job in 2003. Gabrielson studied journalism at the University of Arizona, where he met his wife (and fellow Daily Wildcat staff alum), Rachel. They live in Oakland, Calif. with their two daughters.