It feels like I’ve been a journalist forever. I’ve done the daily journalism thing with The New York Times. I’ve written long-form journalism for everyone from The New York Times Magazine to Wired to Newsweek to the American Bar Association Journal. I’ve written five full-length books, including most recently, KATRINA: After the Flood, and also two ebooks, including a multimedia work for The Atavist. Recently, I completed a trio of smaller books for Simon & Schuster’s new “Masters at Work” career series: one on becoming a venture capitalist, one on becoming a sports agent, a third on careers in the computer security field.
I worked as a staff writer at the Chicago Reader through most of my twenties. There, I wrote primarily about Chicago politics. I inaugurated a regular “City Hall” column and for a time I co-wrote (with my good friend Ted Cox) the paper’s “Hot Type” column but mainly I wrote long cover articles delving into the distressing race politics dominating Chicago in the 1980s elected Harold Washington as its first black mayor. That experience led to my first book, Fire on the Prairie: Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, winner of the 1992 Carl Sandburg Award for best non-fiction and also the Chicago Sun-Times’s non-fiction book of the year.
I thought I might write about Chicago politics forever but love intervened and I headed to the San Francisco Bay Area. After a short stint covering politics for the Contra Costa Times and its sister publications, in 1991 I took a staff job at the East Bay Express, the alternative weekly in Oakland and Berkeley. There I began writing about the youth violence epidemic plaguing Oakland, among other major U.S. cities. That work earned awards from the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the Society for Professional Journalists, and the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance, which named me its print journalist of the year in 1993. That led to my second book, Drive-By, the true story of a single drive-by shooting that left a 13-year-old dead, put two other teenagers in the hospital, and led to the imprisonment of three young men aged 15 to 18. That book, a 1995 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, was a finalist of Pen-West’s “Best of the West” award.
I was ready for a new topic in the mid-1990s. Attending the funerals of 14-year-olds and speaking to kids locked inside California’s juvenile detention facilities can do that to a person. Meanwhile, the Bay Area was going Internet crazy and had something of a computer background. I had written in Fortran, an early computer language, in my short-lived life as an engineering student at Northwestern University and I had programmed in BASIC in high school. I started writing about Silicon Valley for a range of publications, including Salon, Feed, The New Republic, and San Francisco. Shortly after the publication of my third book, The Plot to Get Bill Gates, I took a job as a senior writer at The Industry Standard, and, after that publication’s unfortunate demise, I became a regular contributor to Wired.
In 2003, the tech editor at The New York Times approached me about covering Silicon Valley. I told him all the reasons that didn’t make sense and gave him the names of people with more experience as a daily journalist. But he persisted and it proved an opportunity too enticing to refuse. At the Times, I covered Google going public, H-P’s canning of Carly Fiorina (that piece won a “best in business writing” award in the breaking news category from The Society of American Business Editors and Writers), and wrote some of the earliest articles about Facebook. In 2005, I was temporarily moved to the National desk, where I spent eight months writing about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
I loved the Times but missed books and longer-form articles. In 2008, I took a buyout from the paper to start work on a new book that would take readers into the lucrative world of fringe financing. In 2010, I published BROKE, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business. That led to a miserable year working for “NewsBeast”—Newsweek and the Daily Beast. The silver lining of that experience was that my unhappiness propelled me to meet with Jon Karp, an old editor who was now the head man at Simon & Schuster. Jon offered me an escape hatch, signing me up to write a book about the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina. That book is KATRINA: After the Flood – my latest full-length book and, I believe, also my best.
In 2017, I shared a small piece of a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism for the “Panama Papers” as one of the reporters on the team assembled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
(From a 1992 Interview, source unknown)
Gary Rivlin: “I don’t know its source, but tacked above my desk is this quote: `The nonfiction writer’s greatest task is to state complex social issues in human terms impossible to ignore.’ It’s there as a daily reminder so that I never lose sight of why it is I do what I do.
“My motivation in writing Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race was simple: I thought the story of Chicago during the Harold Washington years was the perfect vehicle for a lot of things I wanted to say about racial politics in this country. It was a particularly fascinating political time in the life of a particularly intriguing political city. It offered a story line rich with interesting characters and served as the perfect laboratory for examining race and racial politics. The racial fighting in Chicago was more charged than in other locales–the politics more polarized–but that meant a sharper lens for focusing on issues at work everywhere in our political culture.
“I see myself as a storyteller first and foremost. Yet I have as little patience for good writing devoid of content as I do for turgid political tracts that require determination and perseverance to finish. By introducing the reader to certain representative characters–learning what makes them think the way they do, and thereby revealing their philosophy–I hope to present the political analysis in an easy-to-digest format. I don’t tell stories just to tell stories: there’s always some issue, or issues, that I’m trying to highlight.
“I can’t say for certain what drew me to nonfiction writing. I’ve told myself that I became a writer because it allows me to constantly learn and grow, but I’m sure my motivations are deeper than that, rooted in some psychological desire or need to communicate and be understood. I suppose the short answer to the question of how I ended up a writer is that I stuck with it.”
New York Press Award for best business story in the online category, 2018.
Pulitzer Prize, Explanatory Journalism. Shared Pulitzer as one of the reporters on the “Panama Papers,” 2017.
Story editor for “Evicted and Abandoned,” by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which won a dozen national and international honors, including Sigma Delta Chi and National Headliner awards, 2015.
SABEW (Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing) “Best in Business,” Feature, 2014.
SABEW, “Best in Business,” breaking news, 2006.
Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, deadline writing, 2005.
Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, magazine category, 2001.
California Bar Association’s “Gold Medallion” award, 1996.
Pen-WEST’s “Best of West,” Non-fiction finalist, 1995, Drive-By.
Society for Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, Best Enterprise reporting, 1993
San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance’s “Print Journalism” prize, 1993
California Newspaper Publishers’ Association, best writer for a non-daily
Chicago Sun-Times’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year, 1992, Fire on the Prairie
Carl Sandburg Award for Non-Fiction, 1992, Fire on the Prairie
The Society of National Association of Publications, Silver Award for Editorial Excellence, 1982, “By Reason of Insanity”