Shortly after beginning work as a reporter at a small daily newspaper in Stillwater, Minn., Ellen Gabler first experienced the surge of excitement that would fuel her extraordinary journalism career.
Gabler graduated in spring 2003 from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., with degrees in journalism and business. She was a bright student and a swimmer throughout her college career, continuing the sport she had participated in at Memorial High School in her native Eau Claire.
But Gabler hadn’t taken part in activities that would set her up with a job once she graduated. She hadn’t even written for the school newspaper and didn’t dream of seeing her byline accompany stories in some of America’s most acclaimed journalistic publications.
“I wasn’t at all focused on what I would do for a career,” Gabler recalled during an interview from New York. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
After graduation, Gabler moved to Minneapolis, where she applied all over for all kinds of jobs. Along the way she decided “I might want to be a reporter” and sought journalism positions. After two months of searching she landed one at the Stillwater Gazette, where she was hired to cover city government, cops and courts. Shortly after she started work there she was bitten by the journalism bug, she said.
At first, Gabler acknowledged, she wasn’t particularly excited about covering city affairs. “But pretty quickly I realized the importance of that work to the community,” she said. “Within a few months I was pretty fired up about it.”
Gabler, 37, has remained fired up about journalism since, reporting and writing multiple series that have garnered national awards and acclaim. After her Stillwater job, she subsequently worked at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune. One year ago she was hired as an investigative reporter at perhaps the nation’s most acclaimed newspaper, The New York Times.
On Monday Gabler learned she and a team of reporters at The Times were awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious journalistic honor. That paper, along with The New Yorker magazine, won the Pulitzer public service category for stories detailing longtime sexual harassment and abuse of women by men in the entertainment industry, media and politics.
When asked about winning a Pulitzer, Gabler replied in the same self-deprecating manner I have come to expect since getting to know her about a decade ago. She said she played a small part in the series of stories honored for the award and was one of 18 journalists who were part of the reporting team.
Yes, those stories definitely were a team effort. But Gabler did her part. She was a lead author of two stories in that series — one detailing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s longtime history of sexually assaulting women and another about NBC News “Today” host Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct regarding women in the workplace.
I figured Gabler would downplay her part in the series. I have come to expect such humble responses when congratulating her for past journalistic accomplishments, such as her stories while working at the Journal Sentinel exposing flaws in administering blood tests for newborns that resulted in disabilities and death, or her winning the 2013 Livingston Award, given to outstanding young journalists nationally.
On such occasions, Gabler typically offers up a “thanks” and tells me what she did wasn’t such a big deal. Usually she doesn’t want to talk much about her projects and instead asks me what I’m working on.
While she appreciates awards, Gabler said such accolades don’t drive her. Instead, her journalistic enthusiasm comes from telling stories in such a way that they can create positive change.
Gabler credits her success as a journalist to multiple factors. Among them are the support she receives from her parents, Carol and Bill Gabler of Eau Claire. No matter what endeavor she undertakes, Gabler said she knows she has her parents’ support, a factor that helps detour fears or self-doubt.
“My parents were always very supportive of whatever I wanted to do,” she said, noting they backed her work at the small Stillwater newspaper just like they do now as she writes for The Times.
Skills particularly important for investigative journalists to possess — work ethic, diligence and a refusal to give up — were developed not in any writing or journalism classes, Gabler said, but are a direct tie to her days as a competitive swimmer. The countless hours spent doing laps and practicing starts and turns provided her with the discipline and drive to persevere on difficult stories that at times seem impossible.
“I wasn’t a great athlete,” Gabler said. “But I was able to swim in high school and college because I was taught to work hard. You can make up for a lot by working hard.”
Gabler said she offers that advice when speaking to young journalists seeking the secret to success.
“I tell them to keep going after everybody else gives up,” she said.
Gabler said the education she received at Memorial High School, from which she graduated in 1999, also positively influences her work. She credited teachers, notably former English teacher Fred Poss, for encouraging her and others to be creative.
“A lot of what (journalists) do is to be storytellers,” she said. “You can be the best reporter in the world, but if you can’t tell a story in a compelling way, nobody is going to read it.”
In addition, Gabler said the many quality reporters and editors she has worked with through the years have helped her become a better journalist. She gave special thanks to her editors at the Journal Sentinel and hopes to honor them by helping other journalists.
Gabler said she feels honored to work at The Times. She was reluctant to leave a job she loved in Milwaukee last spring but said she has transitioned well to life in New York despite initial trepidation about living there.
“The Times is a great journalism institution with lots of resources and very big ambitions. It’s exciting to be here for sure,” she said.
Still, Gabler said, her work in New York consists of the same tasks and skills as other locations where she’s been a journalist. She still digs up story ideas, still talks to sources, still debates with editors, still types up articles.
“We’re doing the same things here as journalists all over the country,” she said.
Gabler laments the downsizing of newspapers across the U.S. as economic factors driven by the Internet have dismantled the print media business model. The loss of journalists in communities large and small is a detriment to society, she said.
“People should subscribe to their local newspaper and support it because journalism is important to democracy, no matter where you live,” she said.
Gabler said she doesn’t have any easy answers to fixing newspapers’ economic woes. Instead, she will focus on coming up with the next big story.
“This job is fun and rewarding and so important,” she said. “I’m going to do it for as long as I can.”