‘There is Truth, and It’s Out There to Find'
In April, Houston Chronicle opinion editor and Moody College alumna Lisa Falkenberg took home her second Pulitzer Prize. The winning editorial: a series called “The Big Lie,” which looked at the myth of voter fraud in Texas and how it has been used to tighten voter access. She and a team of reporters at the Chronicle, which included Moody College lecturer Michael Lindenberger, submitted numerous open records requests to find out how many cases of voter fraud had actually been prosecuted by the Texas attorney general in the past 15 years with more than 94 million votes cast. The answer: 155.
The series argued for sensible voting reforms and was awarded “for its clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning and power to influence public opinion.”
Falkenberg admitted this win was different than her first in 2015, which was for commentary in her columns about grand jury abuses that led to a wrongful conviction and other problems in the legal and immigration systems. Surprisingly, she called that one a “less controversial topic.” Political divisions made the response to her second win a bit muted, she said.
But Falkenberg said it was gratifying to know that her team wrote the series well enough and comprehensively enough that people were able to find clarity in it. “The most rewarding part is hearing from voters, readers and lawmakers who said thank you for putting all of these facts, all of this history in one place,” she said.
This summer, Falkenberg spoke with Moody College more about her work and imparted some advice to journalism students. Here are some of the things she had to say.
The best story ideas come when you look up from your phone.
When I think back to high school on the newspaper staff, I had the hardest time coming up with ideas. I wasn’t informed enough. I didn’t know enough about what was going on in my world. I didn’t have deep enough understanding about people and their concerns. I wasn’t reflective about my own concerns and interests. I think that’s the number one thing that helps me come up with good ideas. I have trained my mind to go about my life observing and taking mental notes of the things that I don’t understand that are troubling other people, that surprise me. If you are playing games on your phone or watching things on TikTok, you are not looking around. Your eyes are not open to your surroundings, and you aren’t going to come up with great story ideas. Not that there aren’t great story ideas on TikTok, but you need to diversify. When I first took the job as columnist, my greatest fear was not being able to come up with an idea. Once, it was Sunday, and my deadline was Tuesday for my next column, and I called my editor in tears saying, “I don’t know what I’ll write next week.” One of the veteran columnists told me, I enter this building every day I don’t know what I’ll write that day. That doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas. I describe it this way, you have a big stove with different pots heating at different levels, and you hope by deadline one of them goes to boil. Usually, they do but sometimes they don’t, and you have to be creative.
Yes, that fear you have of spelling someone’s name wrong is normal.
I am always nervous and will be forever about making errors or misunderstanding something. I still wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Did I spell that correctly. Did I get that date correct?” I am very thankful today I am not a one woman show. I have a staff and editors who are working with me. Many editorials are really group efforts. It’s less scary when you have really smart people backing you up, checking facts, questioning your assumptions. Writing a column can feel like walking a high wire without a net. Sure, there’s an editor there but that person isn’t as deeply involved in the reporting process. But in an editorial board there are people side by side who have reported this issue with you. I think over time I have gotten a lot more confident as a writer but also as an observer of Texas politics.
Listen to others and test your assumptions.
You cannot write meaningful opinion if you don’t listen to what other people are saying, know what they are feeling and be willing to test and question your own assumptions. Nobody wants to read a piece from someone who thinks they are the smartest person in the room when they haven’t done their homework. You can’t write opinion the way it should be done if you haven’t been a reporter first, if you don’t know what it’s like to analyze perspectives and information and data and come to an informed conclusion.
Take the entry level job.
To young people, I would tell them: there is some merit to working your way up. There is a point to taking lower-level jobs that expose you to the industry or really great journalists. One of my first jobs was as a clerk at the Dallas Morning News Austin bureau. I was checking the fax machine and answering the phone, but I was also listening to great journalists doing interviews with lawmakers. I made connections that helped me get jobs later. I wouldn’t have had that if I said, “I won’t go anywhere where they won’t let me write.” Put yourself in a position to learn, even if that’s an entry level job. Be open, be tolerant sometimes of having to wait for that perfect job.
Ask yourself: Is reporting your passion?
There is so much against us as journalists now — lack of trust, the business model collapsing. You really have to ask yourself, “Is this a calling? Is this something that brings meaning to my life?” It’s a wonderful career, but you have to really believe that there is truth, and it’s out there to find. The thing that matters most is not what you are learning behind the desk in the class but what you are doing out in the field — those clips, the stories, the work you do in the field is what employers will be judging you by when you are looking for a job.
Journalism has never been more important.
Don’t lose heart. Democracy dies in darkness. It really does. This democracy cannot survive without an informed citizenry. Who is going to inform them? Journalists.