Former California Aggie editor-in-chief wins Pulitzer Prize

JANE TYSKA / BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

Matthias Gafni wins prize for work at The East Bay Times

What started off as a dream to play football morphed into the beginnings of a journalism career that took off and landed on a Pulitzer Prize. Matthias Gafni, a 1998 UC Davis alumnus, hoped to play football his freshman year, but ended up pursuing journalism after realizing that football was not the right fit.

After seeing an ad in The California Aggie stating that sports writers were needed, Gafni applied and got a position. His first assignment on the sports desk was a feature on a men’s soccer player. Gafni continued with the paper as a sports writer for his first two years, Assistant sports editor his third year, sports editor in the fourth year and editor-in-chief in the fifth year.

“I owe a ton of my journalism career to the CA Aggie,” Gafni said. “That’s how I learned to become a reporter.”

Upon graduating from UC Davis, Gafni had big aspirations to further his journalism career, applying to several big newspapers.

“I applied to The New York Times, The Washington Post and all the big newspapers, thinking, who wouldn’t want this former EIC of The California Aggie on their staff,” Gafni said. “I don’t think I got a single response from any one of those. The only one I heard back from was Donrey Media Group, and I don’t even know if they still exist to be honest. I got a call from some woman in Arkansas, which was their headquarters, saying they were interested in hiring me to one of their papers.”

After landing a copy editing position there, Gafni moved his way up to become a reporter and eventually ended up at The East Bay Times, where he wrote his article on the Ghost Ship fire investigation in Oakland. Gafni had taken the early Saturday morning shift for the paper, and received a call from one of his colleagues saying there was a really serious fire that his editor wanted him to cover. Gafni recounted rushing out to the scene, standing across the street at a Wendy’s parking lot amongst the fire chief and a couple other reporters.

Following the incident, Gafni and a few of his colleagues kept pursuing the topic, trying to find out more about what had started the fire, getting statements and official documents from the Oakland Fire Department and the City Attorney’s Office. In addition, the news team also went to several press conferences and talked to victims and family members that were at the scene.

“Interviewing is obviously an important part about [journalism]. Making a source comfortably is really important. As an investigative reporter, you find a lot of sources who don’t want to talk to you,” Gafni said. “For me, what I love about journalism is the chase. I’m an investigative reporter and I get a rush from investigating things and tracking things down and making changes for the good and write stories that have an impact and shine a light on the darkness and bring it out.”

Since Gafni was able to get to the scene almost immediately, The East Bay Times ran the story in a very timely fashion, much earlier than other news companies. This story, along with other articles published, was what helped The East Bay Times to win a Pulitzer Prize. Of course, staff members all recognize Gafni for his tremendous work and effort.

“[Gafni] is awesome; he’s such a good reporter,” said Angela Ruggiero, a Bay Area News Group reporter and also a former Aggie staff member. “[He] and the other team, as investigative reporters, are still working to this day on the Ghost Ship fire investigation, and are still covering things left and right. You know that they’re working on something important and big. And of course, it’s a plus that he’s a fellow former Aggie.”

Cecily Burt, deputy metro editor of The East Bay Times, shared a similar sentiment.

“[Gafni] is our go-to reporter whenever there’s any kind of a big breaking story,” Burt said. “[He] is always one of the first, if not the first, to know about things, whether he’s seen it on a tweet or email or google alerts. He finds out about these things that are happening, often times before the editors do. He’s always one of the first to volunteer to cover big stories. In addition to always being one of the first, he is always really good at digging up odd stories or obscure stories that turn out to be really fantastic reads for our subscribers […] he is a really amazing person in that way.”

Although having received much praise for helping The East Bay Times receive a Pulitzer, Gafni still describes the process as a team effort. As for his journalism career, he attributes it to The California Aggie, which was the basis for his newfound love in a difficult, yet rewarding field.

“[I have] so many good memories at The Aggie […] My best memories are the people I worked with––they become like a second family,” Gafni said. “You hang out together, you go on trips together and you work together, and it’s just such a fun experience and really was the highlight of my career at Davis.”

 

Written by: Kaelyn Tuermer-Lee — city@theaggie.org