From punk to Pulitzer
Hale graduate leads a team to win journalism’s highest honor.
Washington Post staff, including David Fallis, holding his cell phone, moments after learning of their team’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Sixty to 70 people were involved in the yearlong project to develop a database of fatal police shootings in the U.S.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post
Punk fanzines inadvertently launched David Fallis’ career as an investigative journalist.
As a teen, he interviewed bands and wrote stories for the books that were mostly self-published at copy shops and handed out at local shows to celebrate the ’80s punk music scene.
After graduating from Nathan Hale High School in 1982, what was formerly a creative outlet took a more serious turn when Fallis attended the University of Oklahoma and wrote for the OU Daily.
Post-college, he landed an internship at The Village Voice in New York City, where he spent his days doing research and fact-checking. He spent his evenings going to punk shows at the legendary CBGB music club.
He soon realized it was time to settle down, so he left the punk scene behind and returned to Tulsa, where he applied for a job at the Tulsa Tribune.
“At the time I had long hair,” Fallis says. “When I interviewed for the job, they asked me if I would be willing to cut off my hair.”
Out came the scissors. Fallis thrived in the high-pressure newsroom. Then came the attorneys who announced the paper was shutting down. Fallis landed a job at the Tulsa World.
“It was like going to work for the dreaded competition,” Fallis says. “As a Tribune reporter, the World was the brand that I loved to beat at every chance possible on stories. And suddenly I was working for them. I kept telling myself that within six months to a year, I’m outta here.”
It was during that time he remembered what his father, S.M. “Buddy” Fallis, always told him: “Just do your best and hustle.”
Eventually, operations were handed over to Joe Worley and Susan Ellerbach, and Fallis says the paper entered a new era. He credits their belief in him as a turning point in his career.
During his tenure at the World, Fallis worked as the night police reporter, was promoted to an assistant city editor, ran a criminal justice team and eventually left the daily news desk, becoming an assistant city editor in charge of projects. He covered the Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols trials in Denver. It was there he met a Washington Post reporter, who reached out to her bosses about Fallis.
In 1999, he moved to the nation’s capital to work for the paper. Soon after 9/11, the newspaper industry began its collapse. When the fourth round of buyouts occurred, Fallis was offered the chance to leave. He loved his job. Still in his 40s, he says he knew he had more work in him.
In 2014, Fallis became deputy editor for investigations. Within the year a massive project began developing after the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri: Could the Post create a database of all fatal police shootings in the U.S.?
Fallis was one of two main editors overseeing a dozen core people, but an estimated 60-70 people were involved in the yearlong project. The database started taking shape, and the staff published many in-depth stories based on the information. The work earned the Washington Post a Pultizer Prize for National Reporting in April.
“My role was like an air traffic controller,” Fallis says. “I had to land the plane that’s the closest while navigating the rest in the air.”
He says the database has allowed the Post to analyze discrete aspects of a nationally important issue and prompted the FBI to announce an overhaul of their own system of tracking fatal police shootings. The project will continue through 2016 at least.
Fallis says he is proud of the recognition the award brought to the staff, but what’s equally important is the work he and his coworkers continue daily.
“This project is one reminder why journalism is so important to democracy,” Fallis says. “Our role as a watchdog is critical to keeping people informed. When newspapers die, especially in small towns, power can go unchecked and corruption may flourish.”