Practicing practicum

Kate Dawson’s work as author, producer fuses classroom focus

Kate Dawson had two things from the start – tenacity and a desire to not get stuck in an office. 

“I went into journalism when I was very young, when I was 15, working at radio stations and television stations here in Austin,” Dawson said. “I really just got into journalism because I liked talking to people, and I liked the technology associated with being in television news.” 

A trip to the movie theater opened up Dawson’s mind to greater possibility. Watching Jurassic Park as a teenager, she felt the emotional pull and drama. She even felt a connection to the dinosaurs. And that made her realize the opportunity of authentic storytelling.

“(Jurassic Park) was the first story where I really felt like I could understand the characters,” Dawson said. “I loved the juxtaposition between the emotion and the action.”

As Dawson did the heavy lifting to author her second narrative non-fiction book, “American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of the American CSI,” she had the entire Jurassic Park series playing in the background.

“It’s a constant reminder of keeping with the action, but not losing the heart of the story,” Dawson said. “To me, in any good storytelling, you need a sense of urgency. I don’t like meandering through books when I read them. I just want to be pulled into the story, and I want to know what happens next.”

The ethos she practices as an active, attentive storyteller directly informs her classroom teaching as a member of the faculty within the School of Journalism at the Moody College of Communication.  

Dawson studied journalism at Boston University, where she was determined validate her start in the field. She went to a local Boston news station to apply for a freelance producer position and did not back down even once she learned they were looking for an older applicant.

She was motivated by the opportunity to report in a large market, and Dawson’s persistence gave her the chance to report on big events like the New Hampshire primaries in 1996.

It jumpstarted her career as a freelance news producer. She later worked in New York and San Francisco, achieving her dream of moving around and not being confined to an office space.

Dawson’s transition back to Austin, her hometown, coincided with an awakening to another narrative calling in the classroom. She started teaching at Fordham University in New York and then earned a spot within the journalism faculty at UT Austin.

The only significant difference between Dawson and her students is age. And with that comes proficiency and sensibility. Dawson uses those qualities as teaching mechanisms to inspire students to value differing perspectives and understand the characters they are working to showcase.

“I think when you’re more sympathetic, you become a stronger and stronger storyteller,” said Dawson, whose narrative non-fiction debut was released in 2017.

“American Sherlock,” Dawson’s second book, focuses on the detail-driven work of Oscar Heinrich, a detective and pioneering criminologist. For Dawson, who claims a meticulously organized, color-coded Google calendar, the reporting process was also an act of empathy. Heinrich’s evidence archive contains more than 100 boxes, and he kept daily journals of every single item.

“I would say that I am hyper-hyper-organized, and so is he. I could spot that,” Dawson said. “That crafted my storytelling. I have to look at my own experiences and how I can relate to him. It takes you back to having enough life experience to recognize yourself in all your characters.”

Matthew Bowlin
Storytelling Team